This Mott Haven playground, adjacent to the Willis School (P.S. 49) and the Mott Haven Houses, is located between East 139th Street, East 140th Street, and Willis and Alexander Avenues. The playground, school, and avenue are all named to honor Edward Willis, a real estate businessman in the 1860s, whose property spanned East 143rd Street between Alexander Avenue and what is now Willis Avenue. Although not much is known about Mr. Willis, his namesakes, which also include a bridge, have spread his legacy throughout the Bronx.
Willis Avenue opened in honor of the businessman in 1897, replacing what had been the main thoroughfare of the 19th century village of Old Morrisania. The Willis Avenue Bridge, designed by Thomas C. Clarke, opened four years later, connecting Willis Avenue and 132nd Street in the Bronx with First Avenue and 125th Street in Manhattan. The bridge employs a bowstring truss, which is a structural truss consisting of a curved top chord meeting a bottom chord at each end. The turn of the nineteenth century brought a rise in industry in the eastern Bronx and with it an increased demand for access between the two boroughs. The $2,250,000 project was proposed when it became evident that the Third Avenue Bridge was inadequate to deal with the new volume of traffic. The Department of Public Works oversaw construction, and maintenance was delegated to Parks. Additional access from Southern Boulevard, a major thoroughfare from the northeast, was opened in 1904. To facilitate this addition, a half-block between 132nd Street and Southern Boulevard from Willis Avenue to Brown Place was closed and acquired by the City of New York to construct the approach. Parks acquired the unused 1.43 acres for use as a public park in 1916. In 1930, the Board of Alderman named the park Pulaski Park in honor of Casimir Pulaski (1748-1779), a Polish patriot and military commander in the American Revolution.
The City of New York acquired the land for this Willis Avenue playground in 1963 through condemnation. The playground was developed by the New York City Housing Authority in tandem with the construction of the adjacent Mott Haven Houses and the Willis School. The planning process involved the elimination of a portion of East 140th Street from Willis Avenue to a point 382 feet to the west. The playground was opened on July 27, 1967, to be jointly managed by the Board of Education and Parks. In 1987, Commissioner Stern changed its name from P.S. 49 Playground to Willis Playground.
Willis Playground features basketball and handball courts, a comfort station, modular play equipment with safety surfacing, special swings for small children and a separate sitting area with benches. In September 1999, Mayor Giuliani funded a $17,791 requirements contract upgrade that provided additional play equipment and safety surfacing. In addition to being a neighborhood meeting place, Willis Playground provides indispensable pedestrian access through this mixed-use block and a memorial to this mysterious Bronx personality. If you have any information on Edward Willis, please contact the Parks Library at (212) 360-8240.