Thursday, November 23, 1995


Stuyvesant Square Historic District's 20th Anniversary

A neighborhood can stay well only if its people actively promote its survival. This was recognized early by some Stuyvesant Square Park area residents who saw that the government agencies engaged in maintaining the historic park - Parks Department and Police Department - have limited means and initiative, and need be supplemented by residents' active partivipation, with both money and lobbying for assistance. The Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association was formed in 1968 by residents of the 15th St - 23rd st area, its natural constituency. Among the founders were John Tomany, Jim and Rusty Moore, Charles West and Merryl Stoller. Their objective was to form a membership organization that would raise funds to restore the park and keep it flourishing, through tree and flower plantings, using membership dues and donations. The membership dues have since been supplemented by the proceeds of the SPNA Street Fair, which is usually held in June. Consequently, the Association has been able to keep the plantings going, and to contribute annual grants to the area improvement projects, such as homeless programs, 14th Street Local Development Corporation, and other neighborhood initiatives.

But there the small membership-generated funds were never enough to keep the park from falling apart, and to save the oldest free standing cast-iron fence in New York City from the danger of collapse. To step back in history - the Park was given to the City in 1836 by Peter G. Stuyvesant, great-great-grandson and namesake of Old Silver Nails, the last Dutch governor-general of New Amsterdam. PGS was turning the 120 acre Governor's bouverie (farm) into a residential suburb of orderly rectangular blocks. He felt that the citizens deserved a park, in fact two parks, straddling 2nd Avenue-to-be. The City concurred but let the park site go to seed, with squatters building shanties and pigpens. Eventually Hamilton Fish, Peter's nephew and the future Senator and U.S. Secretary of State, sued the city and forced the installation of a fine fence in 1846, as well as construction of fountains and landscaping in 1851.

By 1977 the fence was deteriorating rapidly and an SPNA coalition, led by Jeanne Tregre, started a campaign for restoration. The Park area was part of the Stuyvesant Square Historic District, designated as such by the Landmarks Preservation Commisssion on September 23, 1975, exactly 20 years ago, through the efforts of neighborhood preservationists, including the late Joe Roberto, AIA, and Rex Wassermann, then the Department of Parks landscape architect for Stuyvesant Park. He died early in November 1995. The coalition, joined by Rosalee Isaley (president of SPNA for 12 years, until 1993) was successful, and raised Parks Department and other funds, approximately $1 Million, for restoration of the West Park's fence, which was removed and shipped to a foundry where the missing memebers were recast. Construction wagons surrounded the closed West park for two years while the sidewalks - all but the 2nd Avenue side - were replaced with historically correct new bluestone, and the plumbing, lights and convenience facilities were redone. Finally, in 1983 the fence came back, and the West Park reopened.

Not so the East Park, for which SPNA shares custodial activities with Beth Israel Hospital, pa rticularly its fence. Parks Department has fallen on bad times and has no funds for the full repair, estimated at $1.4 Million, taking into account both sidewalks facing 2nd Avenue. An effort was made to get the initial $1 Million from ISTEA, the Federal Department of Transportation fund for intermodal?? ransportation relief projects, since we do straddle 2nd Avenue, which has been continuously under repair. That looked promising, but then the Fed grant authorities decided that this is not a transportation improvement project. However, miraculously, early in 1995 there was an initiative on part of City Councilman Antonio Pagan, resulting in the earmarking of major City funds, $400,000, for the restoration. Given that now the project looked real, Borough President Ruth Messenger was able to find $600,000 more, and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern felt that he could scrape up an additional $200,000. We were almost home, but then the bottom fell out - the Pagan money had to be diverted to other areas, and the other grantors could not go it alone.

The East Park continues to suffer. Some eight trees donated by Beth Israel director xx are in need of replacement. THe Antonin Dvorak bust, donated by Lincoln Center, is in the studio of the restorer, while monies continue to be solicited from neighborhood residents, to pay for the installation and fund the endowment required by Parks Department for maintenance of donated statues. But these monies are minor, compared to the funds needed for the restoration of the fence.
Several preservationists have pitched in to help with their support for the fence - notably Margot Gayle of the Society For The Preservation of Cast-Iron Architecture, Fanny Eberhard of Historic Districts Council. Neighborhood residents must pitch in. SPNA should like to have one or more volunteers that can give limited time to the fund-raising effort. To those among us who might think this an immense effort - not so, you will be calling on government, on foundations, not individuals. If you feel that the city has better things to do with its money besides restoring a stable-looking cast-iron fence, it is important to remember that neglect is the root cause of the collapse of neighborhoods. Union Square was the cesspool of the area, until the rebuilding of the park and increased policing in the early 1990s brought it back to life. Neglect of the Dyckman Mansion and its area, in Harlem, impedes the recovery of that city section.

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