A PARK OF THE PAST
This newsletter often reveals what our parks once were, but we rarely write about what was once a park and now serves another purpose. This is the story of a green space with a checkered past.
Our site is in lower Manhattan, bounded by Laight Street on the north, Beach Street on the south, Varick on the east, and Hudson on the west. Originally, this area consisted of a swampy wetland granted to the Trinity Church Corporation in 1705. For nearly 100 years, the land remained vacant, as New York City had not yet stretched that far south, but in 1803 Trinity officially designated the site as Hudson Square. After St. John’s Chapel was built on its eastern side, the patch of land became known as St. John’s Park. Just a hair more than four acres, the square became the centerpiece of a fashionable upper-class neighborhood of row houses, and each tenant owned a share of the park. It was like Gramercy without the fences until June 14, 1866, when the Board of Aldermen met and passed a resolution to "enclose and plant St. John’s Square." Less than a year later, The New York Times reported how the train of progress would soon run over the beloved park:
The omnivorous appetite of improvement has swept away one more breathing-place in the lower part of the City. St. John’s Park is sold to the Hudson River Railroad Company, and within a few months its stately trees will give place to the bales and boxes that make up the vast freighting business of this important line of transportation.
Not wanting to live in a townhouse next to a rail depot, the well-to-do moved north and, overnight, the mansions around St. John’s Park became tenements. The name of the new railroad facility, St. John’s Park Freight Depot, awkwardly combined its past and present identities. It was state-of-the-art for 1866, with tracks running to it and freight elevators lifting wares up into the stout, three-story redbrick structure. If you are interested in visiting it, however, you’ll find that you are about 75 years late. An early 20th century effort to raise the railroad tracks above street level necessitated New York Central Railroad’s creation of a new St. John’s Park Depot north of Canal Street. (The remnants of those raised tracks are now known as the Highline.)
Just a few years after the conception of this rail reconfiguration, New York and New Jersey conspired to build the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel, ultimately named in honor of its chief engineer, Clifford Holland, who died before it opened. Holland’s tunnel and the Port Authority’s subsequent projects brought an onslaught of trucks that would slowly strangle the New York rail freight system. By 1960, New York Central molted off its new St. John’s Terminal and moved to an area north of 60th Street on the west side. That yard, too, has since died, and in 2001, it was reincarnated as Riverside Park South.
The Holland Tunnel also brought cars in increasing frequency. Accordingly, our little square on Laight Street underwent one more metamorphosis—a kowtow to the automobile—and it now serves as a massive traffic circle regulating the flow of cars in and out of the Holland Tunnel.
-written by John Mattera
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
"Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true."