A visual history of Canal Park from 1686 to today...
17th & 18th centuries: One of city's first public spaces
From the time the first colonists arrived in New York in 1624, people gathered to do business, talk and recreate wherever it suited them. In 1686, Thomas Dongan, the colony’s newly appointed governor, granted a new charter that gave control of vacant, unclaimed lands to the Common Council (an early predecessor of the City Council). Canal Street Square, the predecessor to Canal Park, was among these lands and eventually became one of the city’s first public squares. Squares were the cities breathing spaces, "for the benefit of fresh air and the consequent preservation of health."
19th century: From public square to marketplace to park
In the early 19th century, public squares were formally mapped in accordance with the city's grid plan. Canal Street was laid out to enable Manhattan to expand to the north, and with this addition, Canal Street Square became increasingly important as a public square at the crossroads of this development. The Square's triangle was enlarged and approved as a site for the Clinton Country Market in 1833. At the time, the Common Council found that a "location of a Market at the foot of Canal and Spring streets will afford accommodations to a large district of the City, those streets being great places of public passage and resort...and the center of the most dense population in the City." The Clinton Country Markets was eventually moved to the north side of Canal Street in 1860, and the original Canal Street Park site abandoned and neglected.
In 1870 the newly created Department of Public Parks took control of all pre-existing squares, and Canal Street Square was revived as Canal Street Park, with a perimeter fence, trees and shrubs. A new wide-paved sidewalk surrounding the park served as the city’s Flower Market until it was relocated to Union Square in 1891. However, the interior of the park remained locked to the public.
In 1887, the Small Parks Act was passed to address tenement housing conditions and the need for more accessible neighborhood green spaces. The city set out to restore "vest pocket parks", including Canal Park. In 1888, Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons, Jr. redesigned Canal Street Park with a distinctively shaped path, lined with benches, that "bulged" near West Street to accommodate an area for gathering. Vaux, the city's landscape architect at the time, believed the city should provide within "every few blocks, some reservation kept open that will tempt a man, woman, or child to sit down and rest and look about for a while." Parsons, the Superintendent of Parks at the time, felt "New York is singularly lacking in grass and trees, and these small parks are therefore green oases, in the midst of piles and brick and mortar, that are invaluable." Vaux used Canal Street Park as a model for many other pocket parks downtown.
20th century: A park/public space forgotten
The park maintained the Vaux-Parsons layout until 1920, when the governors of New York and New Jersey met at Canal Street Park to break ground for the Holland Tunnel. The 234-year-old park then became a construction site. In 1930, it was surrendered to the Manhattan Borough President’s office to aid in the construction of the elevated West Side Highway. For the remainder of the 20th century, the site served as a parking lot. In 1998, a new Hudson River plan threatened to take most of the original Canal Street Park triangle for new traffic lanes. Community activists, led by the Canal West Coalition, filed suit against the State Department of Transportation alleging that the proposal violated federal and state laws concerning parkland and the Doctrine of Public Trust .
21st century: Park restoration to its original purpose in a layout that respects its history
The Canal West Coalition won the lawsuit and Canal Street Park (now known as Canal Park) underwent a renovation and rededication from 2000-2005. The renovation, designed by Allan Scholl, emulates the 1888 Vaux-Parsons design and replicates the historic details of that plan, including the serpentine path, fencing and enclosure. The Canal Park Conservancy was forme to care for, maintain and enhance Canal Park in the new millennium.
The past decade has seen rapid residential growth on Manhattan' west side. Canal Park finds itself at the heart of this development and at the intersection of some of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. The Canal Park Conservancy continues its efforts to preserve the park's history, maintain and enhance its beauty, and maximize its role as a neighborhood gathering place.