New York City Parks & Recreation Presents Before They Were Parks Exhibit

New York City Parks & Recreation Presents Before They Were Parks Exhibit

Parks & Recreation is proud to present Before They Were Parks, an exhibit featuring more than 100 vintage and contemporary photographs from the New York City Parks Photo Archive and other collections. The exhibit depicts the often surprising pre-park existence of some our most cherished public places.

"Before They Were Parks tells the untold stories behind many of New York City's green spaces through photography, artifacts and memorabilia," said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "From Riverside Park to Red Hook Pool, from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Freshkills Park, the exhibit highlights the intrepid efforts of individuals and government officials to transform industrial, forbidden, or private areas of the urban landscape into public parkland. Before They Were Parks invites viewers to take another look at their favorite neighborhood parks and strengthen their appreciation for the city's leafy oases."

Pick any public park, and it has a story to reveal about what it once was and how it came to be. It may be lush and green now, but at some point in its past it might have been a warehouse, tenement, estate, reservoir, landfill, cemetery or jail. The route from private ownership to public amenity is typically long and arduous. This exhibition features some of the scenarios that have marked the city's never-ending quest for parkland in the densely built metropolis, and is a tale of an evolving economy, shifting demographics, contested space, and creative vision.

In a time of great promise for the parks system, the show explores the historic origins and the transformations that have produced some of our greatest urban amenities. The pictures reveal a mix of loss and hope; in the Bronx a colossal defunct reservoir defines the contours of a recreational complex, while on the site of an abandoned concrete plant a community is given a place of respite and beauty. The removal of the famous gas tanks of Elmhurst, Queens, present a tabula rasa for a new community park, echoing Flushing Meadows resurrection from former ash heaps two generations ago. In Greenwich Village and Chelsea, a lush garden emerges from a site formerly occupied by a market, a courthouse and a jail. An elevated meadow reclaims an obsolete rail line. Posh townhouses along Columbia Heights yield their elegant backyards to create the world's finest view on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Images of a community on the verge of extinction is shown at what is today Lincoln Center and Damrosch Park. And on Staten Island what will be the city's second largest park begins to take shape upon the garbage heaps of half a century. Also in the show are selected objects and memorabilia, including an 18th century grave marker recently unearthed in Washington Square Park, once the site of a cemetery, and an artist's model for recently opened Frederick Douglass Circle.

Park creation is shown to be stimulated by both citizen action and government intervention, often a combination of both. Community-based initiatives from the Bronx River and Manhattan's High Line to Staten Island's Greenbelt have led to startling new park uses. Many of the examples seen here involve the demolition of abandoned or obsolete structures and facilities, and adaptive reuse of post-industrial sites. Other picture groupings examine human displacement, the labor it takes to transform a park, and some venerable parks situated on former burial grounds.

Though New Yorkers may not always know what a cherished park once was or the circumstances of its transformation, they have grown to rely on these places, old and new, as essential to their quality of life.

The exhibition is curated by Jonathan Kuhn, Parks' Director of Art & Antiquities.
The Arsenal Gallery is dedicated to examining themes of nature, urban space, wildlife, New York City parks and park history. It is located on the 3rd Floor of the Arsenal at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in Central Park. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed Independence Day, observed July 5th, and Labor Day, September 6th). Admission is free.