Then & Now: The evolution of Manhattan’s parks

Although most people think of skyscrapers when they think of Manhattan’s ever-changing nature, the island’s parks see just as much evolution. From Washington Heights to the Battery, Manhattan’s parks have been altered through politics, economic turmoil and the demands of its vibrant populace.

Highbridge Park

Situated on the eastern bank of the Harlem River in Washington Heights, Highbridge Park was created during the early 1900s next to the park’s namesake bridge, which was originally part of the Old Croton Aqueduct system that terminated at the reservoir in what is now Bryant Park. Its 200-foot-tall tower was part of this system as well, serving as a massive water tank. Although the park was long neglected by the city, advocates and officials have worked on restoring it to its former glory for over a decade, and this year the city reopened the High Bridge to foot traffic for the first time in over 40 years.

Bryant Park

Bryant Park and its next-door neighbor, the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, sit on what used to be New York City’s main source of drinking water: the Croton Distributing Reservoir. This massive man-made lake held 20 million gallons of water in a fortress-like granite structure from 1842 until 1900. There was a small park adjacent to it called Reservoir Square. In 1884, as the reservoir’s structure began to near the end of its usefulness, the adjacent square was renamed Bryant Park in honor of New York Evening Post Editor William Cullen Bryant, and in 1934 the park’s signature great lawn was created.

Madison Square Park

The park, which has existed in some form as an urban public space since 1686, has gone through many alterations over the years. At one point, the park bordered the original Madison Square Garden, and a triumphal arch dedicated to George Washington (similar to the one in Washington Square Park today) stood over Fifth Avenue on the park’s western edge. After falling into disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century, the city launched a complete remodel of the park, which today is probably most famous among New Yorkers as the home of the city’s very first Shake Shack.


High Line credit: James Shaughnessy

The High Line

This linear park is one of the newest and most popular in the city, with designers hailing it for its unique repurposing of the existing High Line viaduct rail line as a walkway above the chaos of Manhattan’s streets. The High Line was originally part of the New York Connecting Railroad’s West Side Line, which was used by shipping companies to bring meat and other products to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street, stopping at factories along the way, which had direct connections to the elevated rail line in their buildings. But by 1980, interstate trucking became the preferred transportation method for large-scale shipping, and the High Line’s railway was shut down and fell into disrepair. But the nonprofit group Friends of the High Line helped bring the elevated track back to prominence in the early 2000s by convincing city officials to rebuild the line as a one-of-a-kind public space. It was completed in 2014 and helped turn the neighborhoods around it into some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

Central Park

The most visited urban park in the United States has a rich history, with its development dating back to the mid-1800s. While the park has seen its ups and downs, one of its most unfortunate moments was during the early 1930s, when a Hooverville shantytown sprung up (which in later years became a historic symbol of the struggles of the Great Depression). Then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia tasked then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses with cleaning up the park, and not only did Moses accomplish this task, but he fundamentally altered its landscape with new amenities. Moses built 20 playgrounds, the Wollman skating rink and athletic fields and renovated the Central Park Zoo during his time as commissioner. He also raised funds for the construction of a carousel and numerous sculptures.

Tompkins Square Park

This Alphabet City mainstay is known mainly for its history of civil disobedience and as a home for rowdy youths and the homeless. The park was the site of two of the largest riots in the city’s history: the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, which pit laborers against police in the aftermath of the economic depression known as the Great Panic of 1873, and the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988, fought between police enforcing a new nightly park curfew of 1 a.m. and young protesters who saw the curfew as a symbol of gentrification. Decreased crime levels, evictions of the homeless and gentrification in the East Village, as well as the closure and restoration of the park in 1991 and 1992, transformed it into what it is today – as much an attraction for families and tourists as it is for young people and waywards.


Washington Square Park credit: William Simmons/courtesy New York University Archives

Washington Square Park

This park – famous today for being the focal point of the Greenwich Village art scene and as the unofficial campus of New York University – actually used to feature vehicular traffic. Robert Moses attempted to expand roads in and around the park numerous times during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but he was met with intense opposition from local residents that actually led to the removal of cars from the park. A total renovation of the park completed in 2014 realigned its signature fountain with Fifth Avenue and added new facilities and a dog run, among other changes.


Battery Park credit: Steven Siegel

Battery Park

Although Battery Park has existed since the creation of a landfill in the area in the mid-1800s, the Battery Park City neighborhood, which is often associated with the park, wasn’t added until the 1970s. Back then the neighborhood was just a landfill created from debris excavated for the neighboring World Trade Center. The trash was subsequently covered with sand, creating what seems unthinkable in today’s Manhattan: a beach. The beach, which hosted numerous art exhibits and protests – including the one of the largest civilian rallies against nuclear power and weapons in history – eventually gave way in the 1980s and ’90s to the buildings and waterfront we see today.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.