Downing Street Playground

Downing Street Playground

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

This West Village playground, located on Downing Street and Avenue of the Americas, is named for the street that runs to its south. Downing Street was laid out in 1799 and named no later than 1803, when it first appeared on a New York City map. The origin of its name is unclear. Some credit it to Thomas Downing (1791-1866), an African American freeman who moved to New York from Virginia in 1819 and made a career selling oysters. Located at 5 Broad Street, Downing’s Oyster House was popular with leading politicians, businessmen, and celebrities. Intriguing as this association is, however, it appears to be no more than a coincidence, for Thomas Downing arrived in New York City about twenty years after the street was named.

The Downing referred to in the street name is more likely Sir George Downing (ca. 1623-1684), a distinguished diplomat who was also the namesake of London’s Downing Street. An English native, Sir George was one of the nine graduates at Harvard College’s first commencement in 1642. After Downing played a dramatic role during the English Civil War, King Charles II knighted him Sir George and appointed him to The Hague as an ambassador. Sir George may have been influential in the negotiations between Britain and the Netherlands that gave New Orange (now New York) to the British in exchange for Surinam in 1674.

Legend has it that this land was once the property of Aaron Burr (1756-1836), third Vice President of the United States, and the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. The city acquired the original 0.173-acre parcel of land between Downing and Carmine Streets by condemnation in 1896 for use as a school playground. The site was assigned to NYC Parks in 1924 and developed as a children’s playground with slides, seesaws, flagpole and portable shower in the mid-1930s.

A series of renovations from 1982 to 1987 provided updated play equipment, a sprinkler shower, swings, a sandbox and tire swings, as well as the iron gate between sections of the nine-foot-tall brick wall. The park received landmark designation in 2011 by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. London plane trees, a species known for its ability to thrive in harsh urban environments, line the playground and provide welcome shade. The park is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension.

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