NEW YORK—Historic photos in simple wooden frames line the third floor gallery of the Arsenal building, on the east edge of Central Park.
The exhibit, titled "Before They Were Parks," provides a visual history of some of NYC’s smaller parks, with over 100 vintage photos of city parks.
The pictures show the transformation of empty city lots, leveled neighborhoods, cemeteries, landfills, and warehouses into verdant public parks—nostalgic reminders of the planning, displacement and sweat that preceded the parks.
In the exhibit are photos of condemned houses and buildings to be torn down for park space. In one photo neighbors watch as a mechanical house mover relocates a two-story home to make room for the Clearview Park and Golf Course in Queens.
Another photo shows the working class residents of the bustling neighborhood at West 63rd and Amsterdam, before it was leveled in the late 1950s to build Damrosch Park and Lincoln Center. The labor of workers who transformed the banks of the Hudson into Riverside Park, and the local youth who cleared the land for Socrates Sculpture Park are also on display.
“Pick any park and it has a story,” said curator Jonathan Kuhn, director of Art and Antiquities at the NYC Parks and Recreation Department. The purpose of the exhibit is to get people out and visiting the parks, Kuhn said.
The idea for the exhibit came from Kuhn’s long-term relationship with the Bleeker Street Playground in the West Village, where he often took his kids out to play.
The first photo in the exhibit shows the playground in 1959 when the site had a five-story abandoned warehouse and a small octagonal comfort station in the square in front.
“There are layers of history at any location, and sometimes that history will very directly inform the activities and appearance of the place. Sometimes it’s all but forgotten,” Kuhn said.
Bryant Park, for example, was a potter’s field (a burial ground for the unknown dead) in the late 1600s, then it had a four-acre rectangular water reservoir with walkway around the rim around for people to promenade. Then it was used as a military parade ground during the revolution.
Many park sites were formerly burial grounds and cemeteries Kuhn said, including Central Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, City Hall Park, and Washington Square Park. Most of the remains were removed and reinterred according to Kuhn. A tombstone on display was unearthed last year in Washington Square Park, and gives “a very graphic example of pre-park use,” said Kuhn.
The tombstone marks the grave of Irish immigrant, James Jackson, whom historians think died of yellow fever 1799.
Kuhn said there is currently an initiative underway to open NYC schoolyards after schools hours for public use.
“The borders of New York City have not changed since 1898, the population has grown by 5 million people, so where do you find parks?” he asked.
Before They Were Parks is put on by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. The exhibit is free and runs until Sept. 9. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday.