Louis F. Haffen (1854-1935) was the first Borough President of the Bronx. The son of a German dairy farmer and beer brewer, he was born on November 6, 1854 in Melrose, Westchester County (now the Bronx) at Courtlandt Avenue and Elton Street (now 152nd Street). Haffen attended St. John’s College (now Fordham University), Niagara College, and Columbia University, completing his education in 1879 with degrees in Civil Engineering and Law. In 1882 he went west to work in the mines of Colorado, Arizona and California, but returned to the Bronx the following year to become City Surveyor. Haffen joined the Parks Department in 1883 as an engineer and soon rose to Parks Superintendent. From 1893 to 1898, he served as Commissioner of the Department of Street Improvements for the west Bronx.
Haffen’s work as an engineer and politician helped shape the landscape of the borough. Along with Louis Heintz and Louis Risse, he planned the Grand Concourse and other boulevards and parkways, and his efforts to secure public parkland made him a popular figure in the community. When the Bronx became a borough of New York City in 1898, Haffen was elected its first president, an office he held for three terms until he was accused of misconduct by Governor Charles Evans Hughes and Mayor George B. McClellan. Although Haffen was cleared of land speculation charges, an allegation of favoritism in awarding contracts led to his removal from office in 1909.
After serving in various other city jobs, Haffen returned to private practice, continuing to influence the development of the borough as a consulting engineer. In 1911 he founded the Bronx Oldtimers Association for Bronx residents of fifty years or more, and served as the organization’s first president. Haffen’s death on Christmas Day 1935 was mourned by the borough, which lowered its flags to half mast for ten days.
In 1958 the City of New York acquired land for a park on the blocks between Burke, Ely, Hammersley, and Gunther Avenues. The park was named for Haffen one year later. The site was developed with picnic areas, athletic facilities (for tennis, handball, basketball, and baseball), and play areas. A swimming pool and wading pool were later added in the northern end of the park. Reconstruction plans proposed by landscape architect Clara Coffey and the firm of Levine & Blumberg in 1968 called for the addition of many pieces of innovative play equipment, such as arch climbers, helical slides, wood climbers, and playhouses, as well as painted games like skully and box ball.
In 1996 Haffen Park received new modular play equipment (including slides, clatter bridges, and ladders), safety surfacing and paving. In 2006, a $1.2 million reconstruction project included the installation of a new synthetic turf field for both baseball and soccer, and a refurbished ballfield fence. Other renovations included new drinking fountains and benches, drainage reconstruction, tree pruning and new plantings. This project is part of the $200 million investment in Bronx parks as mitigation for the construction of the Croton Water Filtration Plant in Van Cortlandt Park. Funding is being provided by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Municipal Water Finance Authority.