Chelsea Waterside Park

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Located at West 23rd Street and the West Side Highway, this park has undergone several transformations since its first portions were acquired by the City in 1907. Though its early history was connected to a working industrial waterfront, its current incarnation represents the reclamation of the Hudson River and the upland properties for recreational use.

In 1907, five years before the survivors of the Titanic disaster were brought to nearby Chelsea Piers, a parcel of land north and east of the piers was vested to the city’s Department of Docks, which oversaw waterfront commerce. In 1915, this parcel was transferred to Parks, and in 1923 this small park was named in memory of Thomas F. Smith (1863–1923).

Smith was born and raised in Chelsea, and studied at St. Xavier’s College on West 16th Street, before becoming a newspaper reporter. In 1892 he was appointed a stenographer for the Department of Buildings. Six years later he parlayed this experience into a promotion as Chief Clerk of the City Courts, a job he held until 1917. In that year he was elected a United States Congressman from Manhattan’s East Side, and in 1921 he became the Public Secretary.

It was as Secretary of the Tammany Hall democratic political machine, a role he held for 25 years, that Smith attained broad influence as chief patronage dispenser. On April 11, 1923, while on his way to dine with an insurance executive, Smith was struck and killed by a taxi. Thousands attended his funeral service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the funeral procession was headed by John R. Voorhis, Chief Sachem for Tammany Hall, and the pallbearers included Governor Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944) and Mayor John F. Hylan (1869–1936). An editorial in The New York Times commented of Smith: “He had a marvelous genius--it was no art--for making friends. The gift of making everybody like you, the inexplicable charm, some unconscious efflorescence of a frank and winning character, a vital personality.” Flags on all City buildings and Democratic clubhouses flew at half-mast. The Board of Alderman honored Smith with this park’s naming, and the following year a granite stele in his honor was erected here by the Seymour Democratic Club.

In 1931 the park was compromised by the opening of the West Side also known as the Miller Elevated Highway, which bisected the property. Improvements were made to the easterly portion in the mid-1930s, including the introduction of handball and shuffle-bard courts, horseshoe pits, and London planetrees (Platanus x acerifolia).

In October 2000 an expanded and renovated park reopened east of the highway, with its new name Chelsea Waterside Park. After years of lobbying for more recreational space by local residents, 23rd street was demapped between 11th and 12th Avenues, and park improvements were implemented by the State Department of Transportation, as part of the reconstruction of the adjacent highway.

Chelsea Waterside Park is under the jurisdiction of the Hudson River Park Trust. Designed by landscape architect Thomas Balsley, the park includes a dog run at the south end, a multi-use recreational field in the northwest corner, a basketball court to the north, and a children’s play area in the northeast quadrant. This latter area is slated for a comfort station and playground, to be designed by Vollmer Associates and landscape architect Donna Walcavage respectively. The central portion of the park includes a pedestrian walkway flanked by new lawns for passive recreation and lush mixed herbaceous planting beds.

Monday, Dec 17, 2001

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