Ramon Aponte Park
Ramon Aponte Playground
This playground honors Ramon Aponte who as president of the West 47th (now 47th/48th) Street Block Association initiated the long process of transforming this property from an empty lot (the site of a police station for a century) into the small, unassuming, and tranquil playground you see today.
Ramon Aponte Playground fits seamlessly into the surrounding streetscape and imparts its visitors with a strong sense of history, but that aura of established respectability is not the product of age. It is the product fortuity and the community’s unrelenting drive to create a playground for their neighborhood.
The concept of building small parks designed especially for children to play in did not evolve until the 1880s, but by that time there was very little open space remaining in Manhattan. Therefore, the majority of existing playgrounds occupy land that originally served another function. Tax maps indicate that the southwest corner of Ramon Aponte Playground was once the land of John Jacob Astor, but the majority of the playground belonged to a farmer named Charles Kelley. The playground’s odd, diagonal northwest boundary follows the original property line of the Kelley farm.
In 1860 the New York City Police Department built a station house at 345 West 47th Street, the eastern half of this property, and a residence was built in the adjacent lot. Due to its location in Hell’s Kitchen and proximity to the theater district, the station house remained quite busy. Local lore says Mae West was brought here when arrested for her 1926 play titled Sex. With the development of new midtown police facilities in the 1960s, the old police station, which was known over the course of 100 years as the 26th, 9th, 18th, and 16th precinct, and finally Traffic Station D, was demolished. It is also approximated that the three cottonwood trees (Populus spp.) at the front of the property were planted at that time.
The City transferred the property to the Fire Department in 1962 as a potential site for a firehouse, but by the mid-1970s this land stood empty and unused. At the same time however, Hell’s Kitchen suffered with high crime rates and a dire shortage of public space. Ramon Aponte, who had lived nearby since 1950, organized a group of concerned citizens that saw the transformation of this lot into a park as an integral step in the rejuvenation of their neighborhood. With the financial support of local developer Lewis Futterman, the playground opened in 1979. Aponte retired to his native Puerto Rico that same year, but the community recognized the impact of his efforts and named the new playground in his honor.
For ten years Ramon Aponte playground was maintained through community efforts organized by the 47th Street Block Association, Community Board #4, Fountain House, and the Green Guerillas. By 1987 it became apparent that successful upkeep of the park required making the playground an official Parks property, therefore the 47th Street Block Association organized the Save Ramon Aponte Park Committee, which launched a major letter-writing campaign. At the same time however, the City was considering redeveloping the site, which had been managed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) since August of 1981. Nevertheless, the community won the support of Mayor Edward I. Koch who saw to it that Ramon Aponte Playground became an official Parks property.
In 1989, then Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins granted HPD $250,000 to construct a new playground to Parks Department specifications. Work began on June 20, 1990 and included the installation of the spray shower, drinking fountains, basketball court, play equipment, benches, and plantings that, with the existing, mature cottonwoods, make this playground refined and complete.
On April 23, 1991, Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum presided over the opening ceremony of Ramon Aponte Playground. Mr. Aponte and many of his family made the trip up from Puerto Rico to attend, making this one of the few Parks properties whose namesake was alive at the time of its dedication.