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Thumbnail image from the Arsenal Gallery exhibit, Central to the City: Manhattan Squares, links to an online preview of the show View the Exhibit
(69 images)
Thumbnail image from the Arsenal Gallery exhibit, Central to the City: Manhattan Squares, links to bonus images Bonus Images
(18 images)

This year we honor the 150th anniversary of Central Park, a milestone worthy of much fanfare. But this exhibition celebrates the squares of Manhattan, many of which preceded Central Park and influenced its creation. These 40-odd squares include many of the oldest parks in Manhattan and can be found dispersed throughout its business districts and residential enclaves. They are defined as much by the streets and buildings around them as by their geometry; many are actually triangles and ellipses. Ranging in size from a mere one-thousandth of an acre to a maximum of 20 acres, these squares are essential to the life of the city, serving as stages for street theater and as sanctuaries in the heart of the metropolis.

The Commissioner's Plan of 1811, which laid out the street grid, also plotted the locations of Manhattan's squares. Creating a map was one thing, but making actual usable parks another, as urban encroachment and real-estate speculation nibbled away at the plan. A giant parade ground, whittled away to only six acres, opened as Madison Square Park in 1847. Hudson Square yielded to a railroad depot; Tompkins Square Park and others lay largely unimproved for a generation or more.

In 1831 the Board of Aldermen recommended swift action to acquire squares in "various parts of the city, for purposes of military and civic parades, and festivities," and most importantly "to serve as ventilators to a densely populated city." Yet by mid-century, the 1 1 public places below 42nd Street (where a majority of the city's population then resided) totaled a mere 63 acres. Advocating for more public parks in 1850, Mayor Caleb Woodhull commented, "The advantages of open squares in a populous city, are so apparent and so important, that no well governed city was ever content to be without them."

The acquisition, design and development of the 843-acre Central Park in the 1850s and 60s propelled New York's open-space planning, and the Small Parks Act of 1887 helped the City locate and build new parks in underserved neighborhoods. Mayor Abram Hewitt took small, enclosed viewing areas and opened them to the public for seating and recreation. Samuel Parsons, the superintendent of parks at the time, wrote an essay, "The Evolution of a City Square," arguing that high standards of landscape art and horticulture should be applied to even the smallest squares, to the benefit of many.

For such small spaces, Manhattan's squares are brimming with history and life. They have been venues for outdoor markets, military exercises, political rallies, musical extravaganzas, college commencements, and countless receptions, celebrations, and vigils. They also contain more than 40 of our finest outdoor sculptures, including our oldest (George Washington in Union Square). In Madison Square, the nation's first community Christmas tree was lit in 1912, and in Union Square the public convened for the first Labor Day parade in 1882. Elegant Mount Morris Square in Harlem, built upon a massive geologic outcropping, holds the City's last extant fire watchtower as well as a thriving recreation center.

The story of these vital, democratic squares is still unfolding. Several have even recently been expanded into adjacent streets, including Union, Foley and Verdi Squares. Herald and Greeley Squares have witnessed a startling revival achieved by more hospitable design, lavish plantings, improved security and programming. In the financial district, plans are underway to reinterpret venerable Hanover Square as a British commemorative garden. And throughout the city, business improvement districts, conservancies, and volunteer grassroots organizations are working to bring about a renaissance of Manhattan's squares, so that they may continue to flourish and remain central to the city.

 * Square established before Central Park
(Bloomingdale, Hudson and Saint George Squares no longer extant)

A. Philip Randolph (Kilpatrick, Dewey) Square, Harlem
Abingdon Square Park, Greenwich Village
Alexander Hamilton Square (now Johnny Hartman Plaza), Hamilton Heights
Bloomingdale Square, Hell's Kitchen*
Chatham (Kimlau) Square, Chinatown*
Coleman Square, Lower East Side
Cooper Square, Greenwich Village"
Donnellan Square, Harlem
Duarte Square, Soho
Duffy (Longacre) Square, Theater District
Father Demo Square, Greenwich Village
Foley Square, Civic Center
Greeley Square, Midtown*
Hancock Square, Harlem
Hanover Square, Financial District*
Herald Square, Midtown*
Hudson Square (St. John's Park), Tribeca*
Jackson Square, West Village*
Kenmare Square (now Lt. Joseph Petrosino Park), Little Italy
Lafayette Square, Harlem
Madison Square Park, Midtown South*
Manhattan Square (now Theodore Roosevelt Park), Upper West Side*
McCarthy Square, West Village
McKenna Square, Washington Heights
Mitchel Square, Washington Heights
Montefiore Square, Harlem
Mount Morris Square (now Marcus Garvey Park), Harlem*
Peretz Square, Lower East Side
Printing House Square, Park Row*
Reservoir Square (now Bryant Park), Midtown*
Richard Tucker (Lincoln) Square, Upper West Side
Roosevelt Square, Harlem
Saint George Square, Financial District*
Schuyler Square (now Straus Park), Upper West Side
Sheridan Square (includes Christopher Park), Greenwich Village"
Sherman Square, Upper West Side"
Soho Square, Soho
Straus Square, Lower East Side*
Stuyvesant Square Park, East Side"
Tompkins Square Park, East Village"
Union Square Park, Union Square"
Verdi Square, Upper West Side
Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village"
Worth Square, Midtown South*