American Playground is named for the American Manufacturing Company, the second-largest industrial employer in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and the original owner of this plot of land.
Founded in 1890, the American Manufacturing Company produced rope and bagging. According to an article that appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on April 19, 1919, it was the “largest cordage concern in the world.” The company occupied a five-block complex along Franklin Street in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, and its buildings still stand adjacent to the park. Production of cordage – or rope – was an industrial arm of the shipping industry, often based in seaports and requiring large amounts of land for production purposes. The word ‘ropewalk’ refers to the long thin houses built for production of rope.
Much a part of the colonial landscape, cordage companies like American Manufacturing played a large role in the City’s port economy through the 19th century. Greenpoint was the location for several hallmarks in the port economy in the 19th century including cordage. Along nearby Kent Avenue, just south of this park, was a center of shipbuilding during the Civil War (1861-1865). Street names such as Java and India recall the days of busy trade with distant lands in coffee and spices.
On nearby West Street, between Oak and Calyer Streets, stood Continental Ironworks, the shipyard that built the famous ironclad U.S.S. Monitor in 1862. The Monitor clashed with the Merrimack, the Confederate Navy’s ironclad counterpart, off Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862. This encounter, though it ended in a draw, is thought to have ushered in the modern era of steam-powered, armored ships, revolutionizing naval combat. In 1872, Eberhard Faber moved his pencil factory to Greenpoint. Occupying an entire block between Greenpoint Avenue and Kent Street, on Franklin and West Streets, the factory produced the first eraser-capped pencil.
As the industry grew in the neighborhood, so did traffic along Newtown Creek. By 1915, it was one of the busiest waterways in the country. In that year alone, more than 100,000 ships passed through the creek, carrying more than five billion tons of cargo. Immigrants from Ireland, England, Russia, Italy, and especially Poland arrived during the late 1800s to work in Greenpoint’s factories. The local Polish population grew, becoming the largest Polish community in the United States. After World War II, the factories of Greenpoint experienced a steady decline, and today all that remains of the neighborhood’s industrial heritage is the hulking shells of the great companies they left behind.
Situated along Franklin Street, between Milton and Noble Streets, the land was initially leased to the City by its namesake company in 1927. In that year, Brooklyn Parks Commissioner James J. Browne named the park after the company in gratitude for its generosity. After almost thirty years under a lease agreement, the City acquired this property and it was assigned to NYC Parks in 1955.
Today, American Playground has basketball and handball courts, stately iron fencing around the perimeter, a comfort station, a sitting area facing Franklin Street, flagpole, play units with slides and safety surfacing, swings, benches, and spray showers disguised as a cactus and a swan. Although the park initially contained a mini-pool, a 1996 reconstruction removed it, replacing it with today’s spray showers. Completed in 2007, the recent renovation of the playground included updating its basketball courts, play equipment, and planting installations. Ample shade trees grace the park, providing cool cover during the summer months.