From Dump to Jewel: How Washington Market Park Took Root in Tribeca
A volunteer sifts dirt in preparation for planting on the west side of the park. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum
Kathryn Freed, now a Civil Court judge, was the City Councilwoman for Lower Manhattan from 1991 to 2002. In the 1970s, as a political activist and resident of Independence Plaza, she was among a group of Tribecans who helped found Washington Market Community Park at Chambers and Greenwich Streets. This article was first published in The Tribeca Trib in March, 2006.
When Independence Plaza was planned in the early ’70s, there was supposed to be an Independence Plaza North and an Independence Plaza South. In between the two, where Washington Market Park is now, there was to be a skating rink. That never happened, of course, and, instead, the area became an impromptu dump.
Around the end of 1977 a bunch of us finally got ticked off and decided we were going to go out and clean it up. We asked the Department of Sanitation for a dumpster, and one weekend 20 or 30 of us went down with rakes and hoes and shovels and threw stuff in it. The Department of Transportation (DOT) also came in with some backhoes and took away some of the big rocks and pieces of concrete.
Some of us in the neighborhood started saying to each other that we needed a park. The community board talked about it but they didn’t do much.
I found out that the DOT wanted to asphalt the area that we had cleaned up for them and use part of it as a parking lot. They said we could use it on the weekends. I told them, “Thanks a lot, but we really want a park there.” They said they might be able to work something out but, in the meantime, they began moving towards making it a parking lot.
I invited DOT and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city agency with authority over the property, to a meeting in the Independence Plaza community room. I also made sure I invited all the elected officials and I put fliers up all over the neighborhood (see above).
It was a huge meeting. Everybody showed up. I was the moderator and when I opened the meeting, DOT was ready to talk about the parking lot, but we blindsided them. I said, “We’re here to discuss the park that we want.” Then elected officials and their reps stood up, saying that we were going to have a park. So by the time I let DOT say anything, if they had said they wanted a parking lot they’d have probably been ridden out of the room on a rail.
We began meeting with HPD, who said that they would build a park but that the community was going to be responsible for paying for its upkeep. We turned over the area in the back—now the location of the tennis and basketball courts on Chambers Street—to the Council on the Environment. The agreement was that they could incubate their plants there in exchange for taking care of the plants in the rest of the park.
I talked to everyone to find out what they wanted in the park.
We had meetings at IPN and people gave us their ideas.
As a result of those meetings, the first park had a bocci ball court, a dog run, a community garden, a tot lot and, on the south end of the park around where the gazebo now stands, basketball and tennis courts. That interim park lasted for two-and-a-half years, from 1979 to 1982. And if we hadn’t gotten that park we wouldn’t have gotten the second park, because legally and politically it would have been hard to get rid of.
We formed 10 committees of volunteers to be in charge of different aspects of the park—cultural and social activities, safety and sanitation, even composting and propagation. We held plant sales and block parties to raise money. People would come at night and on weekends to work in the park. Almost right away, it became the heart of the neighborhood.
When we started planning the permanent park, Borough of Manhattan Community College, next door, wanted to have a 50-foot-wide concrete ramp going up to the school, starting at the corner of Chambers and Greenwich Streets. The whole park was going to be their entrance ramp. The solution, putting the ramp at Chambers Street, was perfect because it created a break between the active recreation space—basketball and tennis—on one side and the green area on the other.
At the time, there was also a fight going on over the name of the neighborhood, between Washington Market and Tribeca. Those of us who had been down here a long time hated the name Tribeca. We thought it was a real estate thing.
The park was called Washington Market Community Park because there is a lot of history with the Washington Market and because it was a real community park, created with the input of many different groups. The whole community was into it and very protective of it.
We believed that a park is only as good as the efforts of the community that go into it.
I remember saying at the time: “The future of this park looks very promising.”