De Witt Clinton Park
Erie Canal Playground
Erie Canal Playground is located in De Witt Clinton Park, one of the few New York City parks which gave its name to a neighborhood. This area, roughly bounded by 59th Street, 8th Avenue, 34th Street, and the Hudson River, is known as Clinton, or Hell’s Kitchen. The park and playground are named for New York politician De Witt Clinton (1769-1828) and his most famous project – the Erie Canal, a 363 mile waterway that stretches from Albany to Buffalo.
De Witt Clinton was the son of Revolutionary War general James Clinton and the nephew of New York Governor George Clinton. He graduated from Columbia College in 1786 and served as a New York assemblyman (1798), state senator (1798-1802; 1806-11), U.S. senator (1802-03), New York City mayor (1803-07; 1810-11; 1813-15), and New York State governor (1817-21; 1825-28). He ran unsuccessfully for president against James Madison in 1812, with support from Federalists and Republicans. As a public servant and private citizen, Clinton improved the living conditions and as well as the defenses of New York and helped establish several charitable and cultural institutions, including the precursor of the New York Historical Society.
Clinton is best remembered for his role in planning the Erie Canal, constructed in 1817-25 at a cost of $8 million. Critics branded the project “Governor’s Gutter,” “Governor’s Gully,” “Clinton’s Ditch,” and “Clinton’s Folly.” By linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, the man-made waterway solidified New York’s position as the nation’s commercial center, and its success stimulated improvements to the interior and the Port of New York.
Parks acquired the 7.4 acre lot in Hell’s Kitchen in 1901, and officially opened De Witt Clinton Park on November 4, 1905. Designed by landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., the picturesque park featured a recreation/bathing pavilion (by Barney & Chapman Architects), gymnasium, running track, playgrounds, and a series of curving paths that led spectators to a panoramic view of the Hudson and the Palisades. The park’s centerpiece was a children’s farm garden, which operated from 1902 to 1932. It featured flower beds, observation plots, a pergola, and 356 4' x 8' vegetable gardens each assigned to a “little farmer.” Director Frances Griscom Parsons (no relation to Samuel Parsons, Jr.), the city’s first female park administrator, taught local children about plant science, conservation, nutrition, and hygiene. The success of this program inspired the creation of similar farm gardens in other neighborhood parks in the 1910s-1930s and influenced the contemporary community gardens movement.
Sculptor Burt W. Johnson and architect Harvey W. Corbett designed the Flanders Field Memorial (1929) which depicts a World War I soldier or “doughboy” located in the southeast corner of the park. The monument was dedicated in 1930, and restored in 1997. De Witt Clinton Park was truncated on the west side by 1.5 acres in 1931 for the construction of the Miller Highway, which has since been torn down.
In 1996 the Erie Canal playground underwent a $635,000 renovation which included the installation of dog runs and play equipment, landscaping, and a colored concrete north arrow around the base of the reconstructed yardarm flagpole. A graphic on the pavement displays the words to “The Erie Canal” and the route of the famous waterway. In 2009 a $3.4 million reconstruction of the parks ballfields, with funding allocated by Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Member Christine Quinn, included installation of synthetic turf. Part of this reconstruction features an element of green design whereby much of the water runoff will be captured within the site.