Sutton Parks are five vest-pocket parks that run along the East River in the vicinity of Sutton Place, itself located on York Avenue between 53rd and 59th Streets. The parks were originally known as Five Parks, but were renamed in 1997 by Commissioner Stern for Effingham B. Sutton (1817–1891), the entrepreneur who developed this neighborhood.
Sutton was a shipping merchant and one of the few prospectors who succeeded in building a fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849. In 1875 Sutton built brownstones between 57th and 58th Streets in hopes of establishing a residential community. By the turn of the century, however, the neighborhood along the waterfront had become neglected, suffering from poverty and blanketed with substandard tenement housing. During this era the neighborhood was infamous for gangs of street toughs, known as the Dead End Kids, who congregated at the end of these streets before Sutton Parks were built. Stanley Kingsley’s 1935 play about the area, Dead End, inspired several films depicting the area and the gangs.
Sutton’s venture was saved by the arrival of the Vanderbilts and Morgans in 1920, who began the neighborhood’s transformation into a wealthy enclave. Sutton Parks were created in 1938 following the construction of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, which runs next to and underneath the properties; the landfill the FDR Drive rests on is largely composed of the rubble of buildings destroyed by the German Luftwaffe’s blitz of London and Bristol during World War II. When the highway was built, some Sutton Place residents lost their access to the East River. The City built private backyards for them in compensation, and three of the five Sutton Parks are between these backyards. Parks took over maintenance and operation of Sutton Parks in 1942.
A $429,000 renovation of the parks, funded by Council Member A. Gifford Miller and Borough President C. Virginia Fields, was completed in 2001. The renovation expanded the horticultural beds, unified the overlook and the parks, and added new lighting, paving, fencing and park benches using plastic slats. Also in 2001 an endowment in the memory of Bronka Novak, a long-time resident of Sutton Place, was established by her husband Adam. The endowment will provide for the maintenance and care of the flowers, trees and shrubs in the parks.