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John V. Lindsay East River Park

John V. Lindsay East River Park

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

East River Park runs alongside the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive and the East River from Montgomery Street to East 12th Street.  Prior to its use as a park, the East River waterfront played a crucial role in the development of New York City as a safe harbor for numerous shipping interests in the early colonial period. 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 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses developed his plan for a waterfront park, the southern East River waterfront was dotted with slaughterhouses, glass factories, power stations, and railroad yards.

The park was designed in the 1930s, in tandem with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive (also known as East River Drive.)  Moses knew that the highway would pass through the Lower East Side, a neighborhood sorely in need of parkland.  He envisioned a tree-shaded esplanade alongside the highway with abundant recreational facilities and windswept views of the East River and beyond.  The acquisition of land for a park in this densely populated area was prohibitively expensive and fraught with legal difficulties, especially along this heavily industrialized waterfront.  The Parks Commissioner arrived at an imaginative solution. The combination of landfill and Moses’s energetic legal wrangling was enough to secure the needed parkland In 1939, East River Park -- the Lower East Side’s largest open space -- opened alongside the FDR Drive.

East River Park has undergone 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.  The 10th Street pedestrian overpass above the FDR Drive was completed in 1951, connecting the park with residents of the East Village and the neighboring Lillian Wald Houses. 

In 1941, an amphitheater was built in the park, along with an adjacent limestone recreational building, as part of an urban renewal project for the Lower East Side. During the 1950s, the amphitheater was the site of frequent free Evening-in-the-Park concerts. Joseph Papp (1921-1991), founder of Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater, staged Julius Caesar there in 1956. Local schools held their graduation ceremonies there, and the Group of Ancient Drama staged free-of-charge performances of classic Greek plays.  In 1973 however, the amphitheater closed due to budget cuts.  Vandals attacked the neglected theater and by 1980 it was unusable.

The City Council passed a law in 2001 to rename the park as John V. Lindsay East River Park. The legislation honors the city’s 103rd mayor, who served in office from 1966 to 1973, a period considered to be one of the most difficult in the city’s history as a result of social and political unrest throughout the country. In part because of Lindsay’s efforts to maintain racial harmony, the city was spared from the riots that took place in other large cities. The renaming took place on the first anniversary of the former mayor’s death.

In the 1990s extensive renovations took place throughout the park and included the opening of the 10th Street comfort station and the Brian Watkins Tennis Center. The most recent upgrades to East River Park include handicapped accessibility for the Fireboat House and renovations to four of the park’s ball fields. The seawall, renovated for the first time since its completion in the 1930s, offers views of the East River, where the sea-faring city first took root. Additional upgrades include the park’s synthetic turf soccer field and basketball court.

East River Park is a vital link on the East River Esplanade, a series of connected parks and pedestrian paths that form part of a nearly uninterrupted greenway around the shoreline of Manhattan. The Esplanade’s expansion includes the transformation of Pier 42 to the south of East River Park from an unused shipping terminal into a recreational facility. East River Park continues its role as one of the largest waterfront parks in Manhattan, offering a variety of active and passive recreational purposes.

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