East River Park History

Published on Jul 7, 2011

Last week Brian, gave us some background on the Hudson River Park's origins. This week, he gives us the history of the lesser known (except by locals), East River Park, which is just finishing an $84 million renovation.

The Lower East Side has been a culturally diverse epicenter since New York’s nineteenth century waves of immigration. Today, several tenement buildings remain, but without the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that the Lower East Side is historically remembered for. During New York’s high seafaring days, the East River waterfront was a bustling hub of shipping berths, factories, and power stations. But as New York’s lead in the shipping industry began to fall, much of the business on Manhattan’s shoreline moved to the ports in New Jersey. But even with this movement, the Lower East Side continued to be the home to many of the city’s immigrants and working-class citizens.

Robert Moses was one of New York’s most powerful city officials ever. During his twentieth-century reign, He was appointed to several positions in the city planning commissions, was never up for popular election, and based his work on the ideal of New York becoming a modern, car-centric metropolis. His conception of what the city should become was at odds with an enormous part of the population, and several plans had destructive and neglectful effects on the lower classes.

Moses initiated a recreation movement to create new parks and playgrounds all around the city. Yet, many noticed that these greenspaces were placed in areas with wealthier New Yorkers and that his plans failed to provide for some of the city’s most indigent neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side. Although the Sara D. Roosevelt Park had been constructed in the early 1930s, it was not nearly enough public space for the great number of families in the area.

The East Side’s shipping yards were a blighted memento of New York’s industrial heyday, and similar to others around the city, in dire need of rehabilitation. Moses planned to turn this ailing waterfront into parkspace, with complete disregard to the inhabitants’ desire for preservation. Since his rise to power, Moses’s signature “slum clearance” proposals had always been subject to fierce opposition, and his plans to create the East River Park was no different.

The bid was approved nonetheless, and construction began on the 20-block greenspace. Moses was successful in extending the waterfront 10 feet from the original shoreline, ultimately creating what remains as the Lower East Side’s largest park. For 65 years, this land has held its ground as one of downtown’s most coveted recreational facilities, but decades of wear and tear had soon taken its toll.

In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration approved an $84 million renovation to improve the park’s tattered grounds. With the help of the Department of Environmental Protection, the Parks Department aimed to make the new East River Park both environmentally friendly and more resistant to erosion. Included in the proposal were plans to fix the park’s poor drainage system in order to eliminate the large, problematic puddles that accumulated with each rainstorm. A new 6,600 foot riverfront promenade was created to replace the original, crumbling pathway, along with two new embayment bridges. The park’s six years of construction is nearing its end, and just in time for 2011 summer festivities.

Today’s park is a haven for athletes, and its sports fields are consistently utilized by active New Yorkers. An off-leash dog run can be found in the section between Delancey and Houston Streets, and the park’s geyser-like spray showers are as popular with the dogs as they are with the children. The notorious amphitheatre continues to hold free summertime concerts since its renovation back in 2002, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center is hosting free catch-and-release fishing clinics every week this summer.

Once a strong symbol for New York’s changing landscape, the East River Park is now a vital part of both Manhattan’s riverfront, as well as the Lower East Side and East Village communities. The new promenade is an inviting place for a nice stroll, and the park’s renovated spaces provide a safer place for outdoor activities. Check out the East River Park this summer, and see the brand new features of this coveted East Side greenspace.

While the park may be a little "out-of-the-way" if you're not a resident of the East Village or Lower East Side, it's definitely worth a trip (check out the reviews on Yelp). Combine it with exploring some of the East Village's community gardens, and you have a daycation. The renovations have really given the park a new life. For those of you taking the subway, the closest stops are the F train's Delancey Street station, and the J, M, Z trains' Essex Street station. The B, D and L trains will also get you within a reasonable walking distance. It's going to be a nice weekend... so go check it out!

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