East River Park
FDR Drive and Delancey, Manhattan, NY 10002
Price of admission: Free
How many New Yorkers can brag about owning 57 acres of waterside property? Parks can. Rather than settle for a strip of land offering impressive views of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, Parks filled the area with vibrant activity--building an amphitheater, bike paths, playgrounds, sports fields and courts, gardens, children's water play areas, and walking paths.
The East River Park runs alongside the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive and the East River from Montgomery Street to East 12th Street. It was conceived in the early 1930s when Robert Moses (1888-1981) was designing the FDR (also known as East River) Drive. Moses knew that the expressway would pass through the Lower East Side, a neighborhood sorely in need of parkland. He was determined not to let the land between the expressway and the river go to waste. Moses envisioned a tree-shaded esplanade with abundant recreational facilities and windswept views of the East River and beyond.
Moses soon faced a problem: the acquisition of enough land for a park in this densely populated area. Condemnation, the process by which the City normally acquired land, was prohibitively expensive and fraught with legal difficulties, especially along this heavily industrialized waterfront. Moses arrived at an imaginative solution. To provide more parkland, he built a 10-foot wide concrete extension to Manhattan’s eastern shoreline spanning 20 blocks. The combination of the added platform and Moses’s energetic legal wrangling was enough to secure the needed land, and in 1939, East River Park, the Lower East Side’s largest open space, opened alongside the FDR Drive.
East River Park has undergone a great many changes since then. In 1949, when the FDR Drive was widened, a portion of the park between Montgomery and Jackson Streets was eliminated. South Street was extended in 1963, protruding onto another 30-foot section of the park. In 1951, Parks built the 10th Street pedestrian overpass above the FDR Drive, connecting the park with East Village residents, especially allowing easy access to residents of the neighboring Lillian Wald Houses.
An amphitheater was built in the park in 1941, along with an adjacent limestone recreational building, as part of an urban renewal project for the Lower East Side. Joseph Papp (1921-1991), founder of Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater, staged Julius Caesar there in 1956. During much of that decade, the amphitheater was the site of free Evening-in-the-Park concerts. Local schools held their graduation ceremonies there, and the Group of Ancient Drama performed free productions of Greek classics. In 1973, however, the amphitheater closed due to a budget shortage. Vandals attacked the neglected theater and by 1980 it was unusable.
The East River waterfront has played a crucial role in the development of New York City. Before the arrival of Dutch colonists in the 17th century, it was home to the Nechtanc, a subgroup of the Lenapes, Native Americans who once inhabited much of the New York area. After European settlers colonized the area, it formed a vital link in trade with Europe and the West Indies. By 1825, the area was marked by an active shipbuilding industry, boisterous masses of sailors, and a number of active municipal waterfront markets. In the mid-19th century, as sea trade moved to the deeper channels of the Hudson River, docks gave way to factories, and then, in the late 19th century, to tenements. By the time Moses developed his plan for the park, the southern East River waterfront was dotted with slaughterhouses, glass factories, power stations, and railroad yards.
In recent years, the park has been the site of extensive renovations, including 1994 improvements to the basketball court, playground, and picnic area, and seawall. Renovation continued in 1996, when Parks celebrated the opening of the 10th Street comfort station, funded through the efforts of City Council Members Antonio Pagan and Kathryn Freed, with a First Flush ceremony. Commissioner Stern performed a ceremonial flush of the men’s room toilet and cut an inaugural toilet paper ribbon. In 2000, ballfield lighting improvements were completed with funding provided by City Council Member Margarita Lopez. A bikeway was completed in 2001 with funding from Mayor Giuliani and Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
The park is a popular recreation area. In addition to its views of the East River, it boasts basketball, tennis, and handball courts; playgrounds; a picnic area; softball, football, baseball and track fields; a river promenade; and a footbridge. The Brian Watkins Tennis Club, which opened in 1991, is named for a 22-year old Utah tourist who was slain while attempting to protect his parents from a subway mugger. The tennis club honors Watkins’s avid interest in tennis, offering free tennis lessons six months a year.
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