Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza

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

What was here before?

The native Lenape called the land just south of here at the harbor kapsee or “rocky ledge.” Indigenous habitation yielded to Dutch occupation and the establishment of New Amsterdam in the 1620s, and then British rule in 1664.

The City acquired the northern perimeter street in 1795, naming it for William Edgar (1736-1820), a successful local shipping merchant. First a private lane called Tuyn Paat (“Garden Alley”), it is said to be the shortest non-dead-end street in Manhattan. It was later widened and moved north when the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built.

Prior to the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Greenwich Street was the approximate coastline. The Common Council’s authorization of westward landfill precipitated the development of Greenwich, Washington and West Streets, and construction of Federal-style townhouses.

In the mid-nineteenth century, elegant former homes of the gentry were converted to tenements that housed waves of working-class immigrants. An early elevated railroad was built along Greenwich Street in 1867.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, the neighborhood was known as the “Syrian Quarter” or “Little Syria,” though it was home to a vibrant multicultural community of Middle Eastern, Nordic, Central, and Eastern European inhabitants. It contained a variety of merchant businesses, banks, factories, churches, cafes, restaurants, and lace and lingerie stores. The neighborhood fostered Arabic journalism and literature, the best-known writer being Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931).

How did this site become a plaza?

Development pressures in the Financial District led to the community’s diminishment and displacement around World War I and in the ensuing decades, many Syrian and Lebanese residents vacated and settled along Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, built from 1940 to 1950, claimed much of the neighborhood through eminent domain.

Decades later, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the growing residential community and Alliance for Downtown New York urged merging several haphazard plazas into a more unified “village green” that could serve as a pedestrian link between Ground Zero and the Battery. The tunnel’s underutilized exit ramp was removed, and traffic was rerouted to Edgar Street, reducing pollution, and improving pedestrian safety.

The new park, completed in 2021, is distinguished by undulating paths with irregular flagstone paving, an oval lawn and raised berms framed by curved rustic walls, cypress and cedar trees, and a variety of shrubs and perennials, that create an engaging yet tranquil refuge and buffer from vehicular traffic. These distinct features evoke the native lands and heritage of the Middle Eastern immigrants who settled nearby in the nineteenth century.

Who is this plaza named for?

This plaza honors civic leader Elizabeth Harrie Berger (1960-2013) whose steadfast efforts helped rebuild Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.

A native New Yorker, Berger attended Yale University, creating her own major, The Study of the City. After graduating, she established government relations departments at various law firms, as well as at Lincoln Center, and served as an Assistant Mayoral Representative to New York City Council under Edward Koch (1924-2013). Berger was an active board member of numerous civic organizations and institutions including The Municipal Art Society, Second Stage, Film Forum, the American Museum of Natural History Planetarium Authority, the Trust for Governors Island, and Manhattan’s Community Board 1.

Serving as president and CEO of the Alliance for Downtown New York from 2007 until her death in 2013, she advocated for the creation of this park and successfully pushed for the timely completion of the Fulton Street transit hub and the reconstruction of Fiterman Hall at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Wednesday, Mar 10, 2021

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