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Marcus Garvey Park


 

 

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Marcus Garvey Park is one of the oldest public squares in Manhattan. Central to the life of Harlem for more than 150 years, it has served as a meeting place for neighbors, a front yard and play area for schoolchildren, and a holy place for members of local churches.

Known as Mount Morris Park for more than a hundred years, it was originally part of the estate of Metje Cornelius Kortright. The name Morris became attached to the site by the 1830s; possible sources include Robert H. Morris, elected mayor in 1841, and a family affiliated with a racetrack that once operated nearby.

The park itself dates back to the 1811 Commissioners' Plan for Manhattan, which called for a square in a slightly different location, between 6th and 7th Avenues and West 117th and West 121st Streets. The prospect of breaking through rocky Mount Morris led the City to build the new square there instead. Mount Morris Square opened on December 1, 1840.

The park remained unimproved for three decades. A park design by the City's Chief Landscape Gardener, Ignatz A. Pilat, was built from 1867 to 1871 and remained intact until the 1930s. At that time Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, with the help of the Federal Works Progress Administration, installed playgrounds and a system of stone walls, terraces and stairs that remains in place today.

In the mid-1960s the park again underwent dramatic changes. The City constructed a pool, a new recreation center and an amphitheater where Harlem residents continue to enjoy outdoors summer performances.

The park was renamed by the City Council in honor of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey in 1973.

Nature
Marcus Garvey Park successfully integrates a historic natural setting into the fabric of the modern city. The Mount Morris rock formation is the last remaining outcropping of a 90-acre wedge of hard Manhattan schist-the bedrock of the island-that ran between present-day Lexington and Fifth Avenues south of the Harlem River. The Dutch referred to this place and a neighboring hill as Gebergte (Round Hills) and the mount itself as Slangberg (Snake Hill) in honor of that now-extinct reptile population. Many varieties of trees and shrubs continue to flourish in the 20 acres of the park, including Birch, Elm, Hackberry, Hawthorn, London Plane, Maple, Oak, Osage Orange and Sweetgum. An Allee of Lindens shades a peaceful sitting area on the east side of the park.

The Neighborhood
One of the first neighborhoods in Harlem to be developed following the introduction of elevated rail service in the 1880s, the Mount Morris Park Historic District features some of the area's grandest brownstones. Many important local institutions surround the park including the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, North General Hospital, PS 79 and other schools and daycare centers. Among the many local houses of worship are the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, one of the only black synagogues in the United States. Mt. Olive Baptist Church; Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church; Bethel Gospel Assembly, housed in the old Cooper Junior High School; and St. Martin's Episcopal Church, home to the second largest set of carillons in New York City. The Handmaids of Mary Convent, one of the few black convents in America, operates across West 124th Street on the north side of the park, beside the library.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Aurelius Garvey (1887-1940) was one of the founders of the black nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. Born in Jamaica, he started the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the first modern black nationalist organization, in 1914. The UNIA attracted thousands of supporters and at its peak, boasted more than 800 chapters. His message of black economic self-sufficiency continues to resonate with many Harlem residents and others around the world. More a proselytizer than businessman, and subject to investigation for his radical politics, he was later convicted for mail fraud in connection with his failed Black Star Shipping Lane.

Fire Watchtower
A prominent feature of Marcus Garvey Park and its neighborhood, the Watchtower serves as an important community landmark. The Board of Aldermen commission the world's first cast-iron fire watchtower in 1851 on Ninth Avenue at West 33rd Street, and a second in 1853 on Spring Street. Two years later, after petitioning by Harlem residents, the City announced a third tower atop Mount Morris; it was designed by Julius B. Kroehl and completed in 1857.

Employing then-revolutionary building technology, these early examples of post-lintel cast-iron architecture inspired the steel cages developed in the 1880s to support skyscrapers. More importantly, these towers were fireproof. The Mount Morris tower is the only surviving example of this type of structure. The firetower network, which at its peak included 11 towers, fell into disuse in the 1870s as the Fire Department began to install alarms on street corners and taller buildings rendered these early perches obsolete.

The Mount Morris tower survived because of its protected location on parkland. It became a New York City landmark in 1967 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

The Acropolis
Seventy feet above the surrounding streets, the lookout atop Marcus Garvey Park provides unsurpassed views in all directions. On a clear day visitors can see Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge to the north, the Empire State Building to the South, the South Bronx and the Harlem River to the east, and the Cathedral of St. John the Devine, Grant's Tomb and Columbia University to the west.

Pelham Fritz Recreation Center
Known throughout Harlem for its recreation, arts and senior programs, the recreation center opened in 1969. Facilities include performance spaces, a children's playroom, a weight lifting area, a reading room, a computer center and game room. In 1988 it was named for Assistant Commissioner for Recreation Pelham Fritz (1917-1988), a popular Parks official, a former basketball player and coach, and a Harlem resident long revered in the community.

Amphitheater
A gift of the American Composer Richard Rogers, who grew up across the street, the amphitheater seats 1,600 and is designed to house a 75 person orchestra. In recent years it has hosted the Joseph Papp Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park and performances by such well-known artists as Aretha Franklin and Quincy Jones.

Ballfield
With the help of a fundraising campaign by the Harlem Little League that raised $ 150,000, the City renovated the baseball diamond in the southwest corner of the park in 1998. Improvements included a new drainage system, fence and electronic scoreboard.

Pool & Bathhouse
One of the most popular destinations in the park during the summer, the outdoor pool and changing facilities were completed in 1971. The pool opens July 4th weekend.

Playgrounds
The park has three playgrounds. A smaller facility west of the entrance at 124th Street and 5th Avenue features climbing equipment suited to smaller children, while one to the east of that entrance is designed for their older brothers and sisters. Teens and adults favor the swings and basketball courts of the oval play area at the southeast corner of the park.

Call to Action
Over the years many organizations have helped preserve and improve the park, but it is the people who live and work closest to it who are the key to its vitality. The more neighbors take responsibility for the park as if it belonged to them personally, the more it will flourish.

You can become involved in many ways. Enjoy a picnic atop the acropolis, take a dip in the pool or teach a class at the recreation center. Photograph or sketch the park and mountain exhibition. Organize a concert or performance for the amphitheater. "Adopt" a playground and help look after it on a regular basis, or join neighbors and friends cleaning the park and planting flowers and bulbs in the spring and fall.

It's your park! However you come to it, join the ever growing corps of citizens dedicated to preserving and improving this ancient and beautiful section of the New York City landscape. Call 212-408-0201 and ask for the Partnerships for Parks Manhattan Outreach Coordinator. We'll add you to our mailing list for Marcus Garvey Park events and programs and let you know how you can join us.

City of New York
Parks and Recreation
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mayor
Henry J. Stern, Commissioner
Adrian Benepe, Borough Commissioner, Manhattan Parks
Bill Tai, Park Manager

Marcus Garvey Park
18 Mount Morris Park West
New York, New York 10027
Phone: (212) 860-1373 Fax: (917 ) 677-3447
Email: bell_tower@usa.net

Partnership for Parks
Partnership for Parks, a joint initiative of the City of New York/Parks & Recreation and the City Parks Foundation, encourages and supports community involvement in the city's parks.
Timothy M. Tompkins, Director
Mary Price, Outreach Coordinator

How to Get to the Park
Tucked away just south of the 125th Street shopping corridor along the axis of Fifth Avenue in Central Harlem, Marcus Garvey Park is easily accessible by public transportation. Take the 7th Avenue Express number 2 or 3 trains; the Lexington Avenue number 4 or 5 or 6 trains; or Metro North to 125th Street. The M1 bus passes along the park and the M7, M60, M98, M100, M101, M102 and Bx15 buses all stop just a short walk away.

Acknowledgement (From and for the Brochure)
Text: Matthew Lasner and Benjamin Swett
Research and Design: Matthew Lasner
Photographs: Benjamin Swett
Map: Geroge Colbert and Buenter Vollath
Historic Photograph: Parks Photo Archive
Printing: AGW Lithographers

Special Thanks to Jonathan Kun, Parks
Historian: The Mount Morris Pars Community Improvement Association;
Modernage Photographic Services; Thelma C. Adair, Ed.D.; Helen Boone; Jeannette Boyd; Valerie Bradley; Michelle Caulfield; Chuck Foster; Donald Glassman; Lee Henry; Helen Murray; Damon Rich; Steven Rizick; and Sarah Zurier.

Made possible through the generous support of the Commonwealth Fund and the Spingold Foundation.

Links
The Fire Watch Tower Page
New York City Parks
Partnerships for Parks

 

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