Until recently, downtown Manhattan’s Collect Pond Park was an unloved and unlovely triangle of sunbaked broken concrete adorned with a few sad benches. Crammed on Leonard Street between Centre and Lafayette, it was a park of last resort, a better-than-nothing place for jurors to grab a sandwich during breaks from the nearby municipal courthouses. Soon it will reopen as an oasis.
“Restoring this site has been a dream of mine for 20 years, ever since I was Manhattan borough commissioner during the Giuliani administration,” said New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “Collect Pond Park was a visual and municipal blight. One end was a parking lot; the other was collapsing into itself.” The park’s uninviting appearance gave no clue to the rich narrative of its historical past, and a $4.9 million Parks Department renovation due for completion in the summer of 2012 will address its geological, built, and cultural history for the first time.
During the 1700s, the 60-foot-deep Collect Pond was the source of all of Manhattan’s fresh water, fed by an underground spring and draining out to the Hudson River through marshy land to the south. An island in the middle of the Collect Pond was an execution ground, where slaves were hanged or burned at the stake for taking part in the so-called Great Negro Plot of 1741.
Collect Pond Park is also the former location of the dreaded Tombs Prison, as well as the Five Points slum, considered the worst slum in 18th- and early 19th-century New York. As businesses like tanneries, breweries, and slaughterhouses moved into the area and began to dump their garbage into the pond, the once-clear water became a stagnant, stinking mess. In 1808 the city widened and straightened the canal to speed and improve drainage. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work as intended, and in 1811 the pond was filled in to create land to house the city’s growing population.
The availability of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation funding after 9/11 finally gave the city an opportunity to transform the forlorn park. A series of graphic signs throughout the park will feature images and text about the history of the site. Other features will include a central pond spanned by a footbridge, wave-patterned pavers, lush plantings, and an interactive spray feature for children, as well as new benches, tables and chairs, lighting, and bicycle racks. The park was designed in-house by the Parks Department, with Nancy Owens Studio and Abel Bainnson Butz serving as outside historical and planning consultants.
“It’ll be a great new park in a formerly—what’s the word I want?—insalubrious location,” Benepe said.