Collyer Brothers Park
Collyer Brothers Park
The reclusive Collyer brothers—Langley (1886-1947), a concert pianist, and Homer (1883-1947), a former admiralty lawyer who had been blinded and paralyzed by a stroke—made headlines after their deaths for their eccentric, junk-collecting lifestyle. The brothers spent their retirement secluded in the brownstone they owned at West 128th Street and Fifth Avenue, now the site of this park. Langley, Homer’s caretaker, saved old newspapers for his brother in the hope that he would regain his sight. The younger brother also booby-trapped their house to ward away thieves and curiosity seekers. On March 21st, 1947, the police, responding to an anonymous call reporting Homer’s death, broke into the brownstone through a top-story window. They found Homer’s body, but no trace of Langley. After several weeks of clearing out the house with much attention from the press, the police discovered his body under a pile of suitcases, breadboxes, and newspapers. Presumably, Langley was felled by one of his own traps, leaving his brother to die of neglect several days afterward. The housecleaning unearthed, among much other bric-à-brac, fourteen grand pianos and the chassis of an automobile. Later that year the house was demolished and the site became a vacant lot.
The urban unrest of the early 1960s led federal, state, and local officials to focus their attention on living conditions in America’s inner cities. In New York City, the Harlem riots of 1964 gave special urgency to the need for alleviating the congestion and blight plaguing low-income neighborhoods. This urgency was reflected in the 1965 mayoral campaign of Congressman John Lindsay. His campaign’s “White Paper” on reforming park and recreational facilities, drafted by Thomas P. F. Hoving, Lindsay’s soon-to-be Parks Commissioner, fired the imagination of urban planners across the country.
In the “White Paper,” Hoving called for a radical departure from the traditional concept of large, centrally-located urban parks. He argued for the creation of open-space and green areas as small as one building lot (typically 100 feet by 20 feet). At that time, Parks restricted the development of new parks to properties of 3 or more acres. Hoving proposed an expansion of the city’s parks resources into the very heart of inner-city neighborhoods, most of which were in need of open spaces. The term “vest-pocket park” soon came into vogue to describe these lot-size parks.
The “White Paper” influenced public policy even before Lindsay took office; late in 1964, the Parks Association of New York City (now the Parks Council), a nonprofit parks advocacy group, began to assemble private support to purchase property on which to construct the very first vest-pocket parks. Three lots on 128th Street were selected to inaugurate the project under the sponsorship of the Christ Community Church of Harlem and philanthropist Jacob Kaplan. Each lot was earmarked for a different constituency of parkgoers: a tot lot for children under 10; a playground, with space for basketball and ping-pong, for older children; finally—the former site of the Collyer brothers’ brownstone—a sitting area for adults.
The creation of the first three vest-pocket parks received extensive local and national media attention which resulted in a boom in the planning and construction of similar parks throughout the city. Thanks to national publicity, the West 128th Street vest-pocket parks and their progeny in New York City spurred a movement in park design across the country. No lot, it seemed, was too small to build a recreational area or patch of green in America’s inner cities. The vest-pocket movement became one of several critical approaches adopted by government and the private sector to combat the urban crisis of the 1960s and beyond.
By the mid-1990s, the site, still privately owned but no longer in the hands of the Parks Council, had fallen into neglect. The city purchased the property and on May 11th, 1998, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development transferred ownership to Parks. With the help of Operation GreenThumb, a Parks initiative that facilitates the transformation of vacant city lots into community gardens, the neighborhood groups that now maintain the site received landscaping advice and planting materials to refashion the lot into a park. More than a public space, Collyer Brothers Park is an emblem of Harlem’s rich history.