Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Exploring Our Coasts & Waterfronts: East River Park, Manhattan

The CMRC is committed to increasing public access to our urban waterfronts found throughout the New York - New Jersey Harbor Estuary. As part of this effort, the CMRC's Conservation & Access Network periodically explores our coasts and waterfronts in search of areas that either currently provide access or are in need of resources to increase public access to the coastline. Today, we explore a great waterfront asset - East River Park in lower Manhattan - and efforts to revitalize its currently under-utilized coastal resources. The CMRC will be holding its Annual Benefit at East River Park on June 28th! JB

East River Park is a truly phenomenal waterfront resource hidden on the far eastern shore of lower Manhattan. This great park is one of the biggest in all of New York City and contains miles of waterfront public access and multiple facilities for athletic and cultural activities. However, the Park has also faced periods of neglect and as a result many of the amenities, including the waterfront walkway and amphitheater, have fallen into disrepair. More recent efforts by non-profits and community groups have again started the process of rebuilding the park and increasing access, but a lot of work still needs to be undertaken to make this Park fully functional and accessible.

East River Park was created by the "Power Broker" Robert Moses in the early 1930s as a result of the construction of FDR Drive. While Moses was great at building highways he was also adept at creating parkland and during the process he actually added many acres of waterfront property by building an extension of the current shoreline. Today the park is one of the largest in New York City at 57,457 acres. From the Eat River Park Website:

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.

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.

Located in downtown Manhattan the park is really a hidden gem located adjacent to millions of urban residents who are unaware of what lies just across the FDR Drive. Limited access is provided by footbridges that cross the highway at distant intervals. In addition, the residents of the multiple housing projects in the nearby Lower East Side have had difficultly accessing the park and its resources and many physical and socio-economic barries exist for the nearby local communities.

The Park is managed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The Park is home to miles of waterfront esplanades and many, many athletic facilities including tennis courts, basketball courts, a track, soccer fields, baseball fields and more. In addition, East River Park is home to the Lower East Side Ecology Center which provides environmental education and outreach from the Fireboat House just south of the Williamsburg Bridge. On the far south end of the Park exists a great cultural resource in the East River Park Amphitheater. This amazing facility has a capacity of over 2,500 attendees and provides great waterfront views of the River and Brooklyn. Below is a little history on the Amphitheater from the Parks website:

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 size of the Park is so large that simple maintenance activities require a large amount of resources. Unfortunately, unlike places like Central and Bryant Parks, no conservancy exists solely to assist with the parks efforts and consequently resource needs often are not met. Several non-profit organizations have worked tirelessly to advocate for the Park and the need for more resources to maintain the facilities and operate athletic, environmental and cultural programs. Currently, a largescale redevelopment project is underway to revitalize the Parks Esplanade and several of the athletic facilities have been renovate in recent years. Plans are in place to create a waterfront bike and walkway very similar to the current resources on the west side of Manhattan. From the NYC Parks website:

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.

East River Park is an amazing waterfront resource that has in recent decades somehowremainedd "hidden" from the millions of residents in the region. The Park serves a large low-income community but due to limited access the Park has been underutilized by those who truly deserve to have complete access to the Park and its waterfront resources. Several largescale capital projects are underway and many local groups are working to increase resources for the Park, however it still remains in need of assistance to really live-up to the unbelievable potential it has. Hopefully, with assistance from the CMRC and the many other organizations and agencies that are involved, East River Park will one day parallell Central Park as one of the great parks in the Harbor Estuary.

Read more:

East River Park Homepage

Google Map of East River Park

Wikipedia on East River PArk

NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

East River Park Redevelopment Site

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