Mercer Playground is one of New York's youngest parks, located in one of its oldest areas, Greenwich Village. Mercer Street, directly to the east of the park, was laid out prior to 1797 and called First Street and Clermont Street. By 1799 it was renamed for physician and soldier Hugh Mercer (c. 1720-1777). Born in Scotland, Mercer emigrated to America in 1747 and settled in Pennsylvania. His military service included fighting in the French and Indian War of 1755 and organizing and drilling the Virginia militia and the Minutemen in 1775-76. Appointed brigadier-general in June 1776, Mercer advised General George Washington to march on Princeton and commanded the advance. Mercer died of wounds he suffered during the Battle of Princeton, and his funeral in Philadelphia was attended by a crowd of 30,000.
This part of Greenwich Village has a long modern history dating back to the 17th century and the original Dutch colonists. Wouter Van Twiller, Director-General of New Netherland once owned the land in this part of Manhattan, and towards the end of the 18th century several families of freed slaves, established farms and homes in what eventually became known as "Little Africa". In the early 1820s the intersection of Mercer and Bleecker Streets, just across the street from Mercer Playground, served as one of the sites of what could be the earliest African-American theatre company, the African Theater, also known as the African Grove. Headed by the West Indian William Henry Brown, the African Grove launched the career of Ira Aldridge, who went on to play the role of Othello at the Royal Theatre in London, and gave James Hewlett the opportunity to play Shakespeare's Richard III for a mixed audience of blacks and whites.
The area continued to grow as Manhattan grew, and Washington Square became home to the city's affluent by the end of the 19th century. By the 20th century, the area was home to a thriving Italian and Irish immigrant population. This area of Greenwich Village was once occupied by mixed-use buildings like those south of Houston Street, but the area was transformed in the 1950s when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses helped secure federal funds for slum clearance, leading to the development of the adjacent Washington Square Village. Mercer Playground itself was originally owned by the Department of Transportation in anticipation of a project to widen Mercer Street. That plan was prevented by neighborhood objections and the site remained vacant for four decades, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation. In 1991 the Lower Manhattan Neighbors' Organization Inc., known by the acronym LMNO(P), initiated plans to create a playground on the site in keeping with their mission to make downtown New York more hospitable for the growing residential community.
In 1995 the Department of Transportation gave Parks a permit to use the site. A playground construction in the late 1990’s was funded jointly by Council Member Kathryn Freed and LMNO(P) at a total cost of $340,000. LMNO(P) raised an additional $100,000 for the construction of the fence. Supporters included New York University, the Robinson & Benham Charitable Trust, and the Archives Fund.
Architect Peter Wormser, an LMNO(P) member, developed the design concept, which provides play spaces for pre-teens. Features include a long snaked path for in-line and roller skating, a large paved path for running games and bicycling, climbing structures, and a spray shower. A decorative wrought-iron fence, adorned with spirals and silhouettes of familiar objects, unites the three sections of Mercer Playground. The community can be justifiably proud in knowing that, together, they made their own backyard.