Francis W. Meriam (sic), the man for whom Merriam Avenue and Merriam Playground are named, owned land in this area in the mid-19th century. By the turn of the century, the name had been modified to read “Merriam”. The Native Americans who lived in this area called it “Nuasin,” which means “the land between.” The moniker referred to the land’s position between the Harlem River and an estuary that flowed where Jerome Avenue is today.
This playground is bounded by University Avenue, Merriam Avenue, W. 168th Street, and Ogden Avenue. University Avenue and the nearby University Woods are named for New York University. In 1892, the university’s undergraduate college moved from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the quiet rural community here, called Fordham Heights (and subsequently renamed University Heights). In 1973, the entire site was sold to the city, and today the campus is home to the Bronx Community College, a part of the City University of New York.
Ogden Avenue follows the path of Highbridge Avenue, a road from the 1850s. In 1876, the road was named for William B. Ogden whose nearby estate was called “Villa Boscobel.” Ogden was a real estate developer in New York, the first mayor of Chicago (1837-1838), and the first president of the Union Pacific Railroad (1862-1863). Ogden later returned east to enjoy his retirement. When his estate in the Bronx was auctioned off over the course of four days, it was subdivided into 1,500 separate building plots.
The city acquired this property for park purposes in two separate parcels -- the first in February 1948, the second in June 1949. On July 11, 1949, the playground was officially opened at a ceremony that included Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) and New York Mayor William O’Dwyer (1890-1964).
Merriam Playground, which overlooks and slopes down toward the Harlem River, reflects a hilly topography. The upper level has swings, benches, three areas of climbing equipment, a sprinkler, water fountain, and basketball courts. There are also several mature Pin oaks (Quercus palustris). A walkway connects the upper level to the lower level, and about halfway down there is a peaceful and shady seating area. The lower level of the playground has London plane trees (Platanus acerifolia) and benches, in addition to basketball courts, handball courts, climbing equipment, and another sprinkler.
In 1994, due to severe cracking under the basketball and handball courts, Merriam Playground received a $560,000 renovation which included the installation of retaining walls. The children’s area also received new play equipment, benches, and safety surfacing. In 2006, with the aid of $91,693 in mayoral funds, the surrounding sidewalk area was improved and tree pits enlarged.
With its beautiful view of the Harlem River and the island of Manhattan, Merriam Playground provides local children with a place to enjoy themselves.