What was here before?
Jonas Bronck, the borough’s namesake, built his farm near present-day East 132nd Street and Lincoln Avenue. He only lived in the area for around four years and sold the land to the powerful Morris family in 1670. Several centuries later in 1828, Jordan L. Mott purchased property that would become Mott Haven for his ironworks, and over the ensuing decades the area developed considerably. By the 1870s this parcel of land was lined with brownstones and brick and framed residences. Around the same time, the IRT Third Avenue Line, an elevated railway between Manhattan and the Bronx, ran through this site until it was closed in the 1950s and dismantled.
How did this site become a park?
The City of New York acquired the land for this playground in 1963 through condemnation. The playground was developed by the New York City Housing Authority in tandem with the construction of the adjacent Mott Haven Houses and the Willis School, which included the elimination of a portion of East 140th Street.
The playground opened in 1967 as a Jointly Operated Playground serving P.S. 49 and the local community. Beginning in 1938, the Board of Education (now the Department of Education) agreed to provide land next to schools where NYC Parks could build and maintain playgrounds that could be used by the school during the day and by the public when school is not in session be jointly managed by the Board of Education and Parks. In 1987, P.S. 49 Playground was renamed Willis Playground.
The site was updated in 1999 and reconstructed in 2022 with two new play sets outfitted with activities geared towards a wider age range, new swing sets, and a spray shower that serves as a playful centerpiece in the playground, among other basic site upgrades.
Who is this park named for?
The playground, school, and avenue are all named to honor Edward Willis, a real estate businessman in the 1860s who lived at 280 Alexander Avenue. Known as “The Irish Fifth Avenue” and “Politician’s Row,” the avenue between East 137th and 141st Streets was notable for its elaborate architecture and became a landmarked district in 1969.
Willis Avenue opened in honor of the businessman in 1897, replacing what had been the main thoroughfare of the 19th-century village of Old Morrisania. The Willis Avenue Bridge, designed by Thomas C. Clarke, opened four years later, connecting Willis Avenue and 132nd Street in the Bronx with First Avenue and 125th Street in Manhattan.