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, and its buildings still stand adjacent to the park.
American Playground is in Greenpoint, a neighborhood of great historical significance to the borough of Brooklyn. Greenpoint, which lies at Brooklyn’s northeasternmost extremity, was purchased from the Keskachague Indians by the Dutch in 1638 as part of the larger acquisition of Boswijck (Bushwick). Greenpoint is named for the grassy banks that lined the East River when the Dutch set up the first small farms here in the 1640s. Though this neighborhood bears a verdant name, much of its history is defined by heavy industry.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, Greenpoint became home to a great concentration of factories, warehouses, lumberyards, foundries, coalyards, and gas storage tanks, concentrated primarily along the waterfronts of the East River and Newtown Creek. Greenpoint was well known as a home the five “black” arts: printing, glassmaking, potmaking, oil refining, and cast-iron manufacturing. 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 are a reminder of 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 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. Today the Polish community is Greenpoint’s largest ethnic group , and 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 Greenpoint’s industrial past is the hulking shells of the great companies they left behind.
American Playground lies along Franklin Street between Milton and Noble Streets. The City of New York assigned the lot to Parks on April 18, 1955. Before that, the City had been leasing the land from the American Manufacturing Company since 1927 for parks purposes, at a rent of one dollar, payable every third year upon renewal of the lease. In gratitude for the generosity of the American Manufacturing Company, the Commissioner of Parks for the Borough of Brooklyn, James J. Browne, named the park in its honor.
Today, American Playground has basketball and handball courts, stately iron fencing around the perimeter, a comfort station, a sitting area facing Franklin Street, a flagpole and yardarm flying the flags of Parks, the City of New York, and the United States, play units with slides and safety surfacing, swings, benches, and spray showers disguised as a cactus and a swan. Ample shade trees grace the park, providing cool cover during the summer months. Although the park initially contained a mini-pool, a 1996 renovation removed it, replacing it with the spray showers. This $181,728 project was funded by Council Member Kenneth K. Fisher.