Rev. Linnette C. Williamson Memorial Park
The Reverend Linnette C. Williamson (1923-1990) of the Christ Community Church of Harlem, a native of Jamaica, was ordained in 1956. Known to the community as “Rev,” she provided many services during her long ministry, including three day camps, a remedial reading program, a youth center, a day care for working mothers, the Head Start program, a soup kitchen and food pantry, and vest-pocket parks. Williamson was also co-founder of the New York Council of Smaller Churches, a nonprofit, social services agency created to alleviate the plight of the homeless, the substance abusers, and the neglected.
The Harlem riots of 1964 gave special urgency to the problems of congestion and blight plaguing low-income neighborhoods. Late in 1964, the Park Association of New York City (now the Parks Council), under the leadership of Whitney North Seymour, Jr., began to assemble support to construct the first vest-pocket parks in the city. Mr. Seymour brought together many civic-minded people, including the philanthropist Jacob M. Kaplan and the Rev. Williamson. It was here on Rev. Williamson’s block of West 128th Street, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, that three vacant, City-owned lots were chosen to begin a revolution in public open spaces
This initiative resonated in the 1965 mayoral campaign of Congressman John V. Lindsay (1921-2000). His campaign’s “White Paper” on reforming park and recreational facilities, drafted by Thomas P. F. Hoving (who would become Lindsay’s 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 creating open space and green areas as small as one building lot: 100 feet by 20 feet. This meant expanding the City’s park and recreational resources into the very heart of those inner-city neighborhoods most in need of new open spaces. The term “vest-pocket park” soon came into vogue to describe these lot-size parks. The White Paper influenced City Hall even before Lindsay’s election.
The first lot to become a vest-pocket park, located at 65 West 128th Street, opened in May 1965 with much fanfare. It included murals on the wall of an adjacent building and a metal structure designed to support a tent covering a social area. The other two 128th Street lots were developed and opened as parks later that summer with equal enthusiasm. One of these lots still exists at the northwest corner of 128th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The creation of the first three vest-pocket parks received extensive local and national media attention. Federal, state and local officials (including Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Jacob Javits, and Mayor Robert F. Wagner) visited the parks on West 128th Street and judged them to be models of inner-city open space design. A boom in the planning and construction of similar parks soon followed throughout the city, sparking a drive for innovative designs of recreational equipment suitable for the new parks.
Thanks to national publicity, the West 128th Street vest-pocket parks and their offshoots in New York City spurred a movement in park design across the country. The parks had an impact on urban design from New York to Los Angeles. No lot, it seemed, was too small for a recreational area or patch of green in America’s inner cities. The vest-pocket movement became one of several crucial methods of combating the urban crisis of the 1960s and beyond. This vest-pocket park, the first in New York City and in the nation, was renovated in 1995 by the Rev. Linnette C. Williamson Memorial Park Association, Inc., with the support of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America). On July 12, 1999 this property was transferred to Parks.