Common sense dictates that in a community as densely developed as Lower Manhattan, with real estate prices on a seemingly relentless vertical trajectory, it is simply not possible to create new parks. But common sense is wrong: Just in the last year, one entirely new public space, Liberty Park, has opened to the public, while two others have undergone radical transformations: Governors Island and the Battery. And there may be one more miracle in the pipeline: The proposed Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza, on lower Greenwich Street, recently cleared one crucial hurdle, and will pass another milestone on Monday.
The effort is being spearheaded by Downtown Alliance, which is proposing to eliminate a two-lane exit ramp from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and combine a pair of small Financial District plazas that it separates into a single, larger public square. One of the two spaces, Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza (which will lend its name to the larger, combined park), is located on the north side of the exit ramp, and surrounded by Edgar Street, Greenwich Street, and Trinity Place. Formerly known as Edgar Plaza, this space was renamed in December, 2013 to honor the deceased president of the Alliance, Elizabeth Berger, who was a tireless civic champion of Lower Manhattan.
The second space, known as Trinity Plaza and situated on the south side of the exit ramp, is a forlorn, irregularly shaped expanse of concrete that is bordered by Trinity Place on the east, but largely cut off from the surrounding community on all other sides by fencing and guard rails for the tunnel. The exit ramp that currently lies between them vents traffic from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel onto Trinity Place, but is replicated by another, nearby ramp that directs vehicles exiting the tunnel onto Greenwich street. The value of both ramps is limited by the fact that they are closed to traffic during the morning rush hour, when drivers are most likely to utilize them.
A landscape layout showing the areas for grass, shrubbery, flowers and groves of trees envisioned for the new park.
The two-lane exit ramp takes up 2,500 square feet of open space. If eliminated and absorbed into a single plaza created by combining those on either side, the resulting new park would have an area more than 29,000 square feet. The traffic that currently uses the ramp slated for removal would still be able to rejoin Trinity Place by making right turns onto either Edgar or Rector Streets.
Historical elements will include the hooped bench design that the New York City Parks Department created for the 1939 World’s Fair.
The City’s Department of Parks and Recreation has completed a proposed design for the new park, which features a shaded meadow, banks of flowering plants and shrubs, and groves of trees, including conifers, dogwoods, cedars, cypresses, and red oaks. These would be surrounded by granite and flagstone surfaces, as well as classical design elements, such as the hooped benches that the Parks Department designed for the 1939 World’s Fair.
The Type B light fixture that will adorn the new Elizabeth H. Berger Plaza was designed in 1911 to house the first electric lights in any New York City park, by Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial.
Lighting will be provided by two types of historical fixture. The columnar Type B light pole was created by Henry Bacon (architect of the Lincoln Memorial) in 1911, to house electric lamps on the Central Park Mall, the first in any New York City park. In Bacon’s design, the shaft is topped by a lantern, cupped in abstracted leaves that trace and twist along elliptical curves, and crowned by an acorn cap. Bacon’s lamps will be complemented by Mast-Arm lights posts (also known as Type M), originally created in 1908, by a designer whose name is lost to history, for gas lights on the wide expanses of Broadway, north of Columbus Circle.
City Council member Margaret Chin, who has long championed the transformation of Berger Plaza, said, “as the Financial District’s residential population continues to grow, we must make it a priority to improve and increase public open space within the neighborhood. This proposal could make a great positive impact on that front, and that’s why I allocated the capital funding to help make it possible. I look forward to working with local residents and the Downtown Alliance, Community Board 1 and the City on this plan to provide a larger, more vibrant public space for the community.”
Further creative energy will be harnessed for Berger Plaza on Monday (August 8), when gathering of several dozen of the most notable Arab and Middle Eastern artists in the world will convene at the City’s Hall of Records (31 Chambers Street, near Centre Street) to meet with art experts and City officials. From this pool, a group of five finalists will eventually be selected to create proposals for the artwork that to adorn the new park. The emphasis on a Middle Eastern idiom harks back to a nearly forgotten chapter of local history.
Today, the stretch of Greenwich and Washington Streets between Battery Place and Albany Street — bisected by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance — is known by the forgettable name, “Greenwich South.” By all appearances it is an orphan of a neighborhood that never quite coalesced. But nothing could be further from the truth. A century ago, before the World Trade Center or the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (the two giant public works projects that decimated this once-thriving quarter), it was an ethnic enclave as vibrant as Little Italy or Chinatown.
During World War II the neighborhood air wardens led a parade down Washington Street. In the background are the New York Post building and Public School 29
But the immigrants who flocked here were Arabs, and the neighborhood was called, “Little Syria.” The length of Greenwich Street, north of Battery Park and south of Liberty Street, was to newcomers from Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, what Mulberry Street was for Italian transplants and Canal Street was for the Chinese. Their life was centered beneath the Ninth Avenue Elevated Train, which ran up Greenwich Street. (As difficult as it is to envision this perilously narrow lane accommodating a railroad viaduct, it once did — and the station at Rector Street was the center of their urban village.) The social and spiritual focus of the community was St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, for most of the Arabic-speaking immigrants who lived here were Christian (of the Maronite and Melkite sects), rather than Muslim.
One still-visible relic of this past is the St. George Tavern, located Washington Street, just north of Rector Street. Although now a Chinese restaurant, this structure was once the St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church. The building (landmarked in 2009), was erected as a rooming house in 1812, but reclad in white terra cotta (complete with a relief sculpture of the chapel’s patron, slaying a dragon), when it was converted into a church in 1930.
Much of this rich history is now on display at the Hall of Records, which is hosting an exhibit, “Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy,” on loan from the Arab American National Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. This showcase is complemented with tours conducted by local historians Todd Fine and Joe Svelak (both board members of the Washington Street Historical Society), who specialize in commemorating the legacy of Little Syria. Upcoming dates for these tours (which begin at 6:00 pm) include next Thursday (August 11) and September 9. For more information, please contact Mr. Fine via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Berger Plaza photos and illustrations courtesy Downtown Alliance
Little Syria photos courtesy Arcadia Publishing 2004