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Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Park

Gowanus Playground

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

Bounded by Hoyt, Wyckoff, and Bond streets, this playground takes its name from the surrounding Brooklyn community of Gowanus. The word “Gowanus” comes from the name of a Native American, Gowane, who was either a member of the Mohawks, or a sachem, or chief, of the Canarsee tribe. Native Americans inhabited the area for centuries before Dutch farmers settled here in the 1640s. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), this site was part of the Battle of Brooklyn, one of the war’s earliest and most brutal conflicts. In the battle, the British killed 256 American soldiers and wounded or captured another hundred. Only a brilliant retreat to Manhattan, masterminded by General George Washington (1732-1799), managed to save the fledgling Continental Army from certain destruction.

Other than this bloody interlude in America’s fight for independence, Gowanus remained a peaceful and largely rural community well into the mid-nineteenth century. In the late 1840s, Edwin Clarke Litchfield (1815-1885) expanded Gowane Creek, converting it into the Gowanus Canal. Litchfield was a railroad businessman and a lawyer whose Italianate villa off Prospect Park West now serves as the headquarters of Parks in Brooklyn. He influenced a great deal of development in Brooklyn, as he had purchased huge tracts of farmland in the 1850s and began selling them to home developers after the Civil War.

With the completion of the Gowanus Canal, several industrial firms moved into the area, which in turn attracted residents. The community of Gowanus developed as a working-class enclave. However, waste from the surrounding industries polluted the canal, leading the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1893 to call it an “open cesspool.” Because the force of tides was insufficient to empty the canal’s northern polluted end, a flushing tunnel powered by a giant propeller leading to Buttermilk Channel was constructed. Workmen damaged the tunnel in the 1960s, and it remained inactive until being repaired in 1999. Aside from the canal, Gowanus contains several transportation landmarks, including the tallest subway viaduct in New York City (the F line at Smith and 9th streets, which extends 87.5 feet above the canal), and the Carrol Street Rail Bridge (1889), one of only a few retractile bridges left in the United States.

In 1946, the City of New York acquired this property by condemnation as a part of the Gowanus Houses construction project. The land was reserved for park purposes, and it was transferred to Parks in the same year. Originally named the Gowanus Houses Playground, the park’s name was changed in 1987 to Gowanus Playground to reflect its importance to the entire community. The playground contains a spray shower, comfort station, seal sculpture, benches, handball and basketball courts, and play equipment with safety surfacing. A flagpole flies the United States stars and stripes, and a yardarm displays the flags of Parks & Recreation and the City of New York.

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