Places that Matter

Columbus Park

click on image for slideshow
"We Are One" ILGWU newsletter, 1982,  photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani from the Triangle Fire Open Archive
"We Are One" ILGWU newsletter, 1982, photo by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani from the Triangle Fire Open Archive
Columbus Park, spring 2012
Columbus Park, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Columbus Park games, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Tai Chi in the Columbus Park pavilion, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Music in Columbus Park, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Formerly the Mulberry Bend slums, now a park used by mahjong and basketball players alike
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

Bounded by Mulberry, Baxter, Worth and Bayard Streets, and located at the southwestern edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown, Columbus Park occupies the site of one of 19th century-New York’s most infamous slums. In 1855 it was near the center of the Five Points neighborhood -- widely considered the toughest place to live in antebellum New York City. Five Points was an important neighborhood for the African American population living in Lower Manhattan, and immigrants, including significant numbers from Ireland, settled there as well. It was also the hub of the city’s cheap retail clothing trade, with scores of clothing workers living in the area, and forty-eight percent of Five Points’ women working long hours in overcrowded buildings, sewing shirts, caps, dresses and vests for the lowest wages available to them.

By the 1870s, the site of future Columbus Park was known as Mulberry Bend. Reporter-turned-reformer Jacob Riis (who worked from an office located just blocks north of “the Bend”) began extensively documenting and publicizing the area’s deplorable living and working conditions in the hope of inducing others to social reform. Riis’ relentless campaigns for legal regulation of housing and health indirectly led to the demise of Mulberry Bend. In 1887, the New York State legislature passed the Small Parks Act, through which it authorized the condemnation of privately owned property for the purpose of creating public parks. The legislation was meant to provide working classes in densely populated neighborhoods with amenities like fresh air and sunshine. Architect and landscape architect Calvert Vaux filed plans in for a park on the Bend site in 1888, but the process of appropriating private land for public use was complicated, and the city faced fierce resistance, especially from property owners. As a result, the project’s implementation was delayed for several years.

In his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, Riis devoted an entire chapter to the Bend, which was not yet cleared of its decrepit housing stock and Riis’ estimate of 5,650 inhabitants. According to author Verlyn Klinkenborg, this would translate to approximately 2,047 people per acre. Klinkenborg suggests that if this number is to be believed, it is among the highest population densities ever recorded. In How the Other Half Lives, Riis reiterated, perhaps with cautious optimism, that, “the city authorities, moved by the angry protests of ten years of sanitary reform effort, have decided that it is too much and must come down. Another Paradise Park will take its place and let in sunlight and air to work such transformation as at the Five Points, around the corner of the next block.”

Riis and other social reformers were instrumental in convincing the city to raze the derelict area to the ground in 1895. Two years later, Mulberry Bend Park was finally dedicated as one of the first two parks created under provisions of the then decade-old 1887 Small Parks Act. Mulberry Bend’s demolition inaugurated what would become on of the city’s prevailing policies for the amelioration of urban woes. To the reformers of Jacob Riis’ day, the pathology of the urban poor grew directly from their physical living conditions. New York’s long history of urban renewal and slum clearance programs can be traced, at least in sentiment, to reformers’ battles with this particular site.

When the park opened, it featured an expansive grassy area lined with curved walkways. However, Mulberry Bend Park was not designed for active recreation, as is suggested by Riis’ account of his first visit to the park, which he related in 1900’s A Ten Years’ War,

“In my delight I walked upon the grass. It seemed as if I should never be satisfied till I had felt the sod under my feet, - sod in the Mulberry Bend! I did not see the gray-coated policeman hastening my way, nor the wide-eyed youngster awaiting with shuddering delight the catastrophe that was coming, until I felt his cane laid smartly across my back and heard his angry command: -

‘Hey! Come off the grass! D’ye think it is made to walk on?’

So that was what I got for it. It is the way of the world. But it was all right. The park was there, that was the thing.”

In 1911, the park was renamed Columbus Park (after Christopher Columbus) and the central grassy area was paved over with a playground, reflecting the contemporary urban park philosophy that favored active, physical recreation over open space.

In 1934, the park was improved with tree and shrubs planting, an enlarged playground, and a limestone recreation center. Construction began in August, and the park reopened in October with a Columbus Day rally attended by nearly 15, 000 people. A rediscovered status of Columbus was installed on the site, and a flock of 442 homing pigeons from the Bronx Homing Pigeon Club were released in recognition of each year that had passed since 1492. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia spoke of the Italian community’s contributions to the city, but he also appealed to global audiences to follow the United States' lead in maintaining peace among diverse racial and religious constituents. “Mold, amalgamate and blend," he urged.

Throughout the 20th century, New York City's Chinese community expanded into the Italian neighborhood adjacent to Columbus Park. There, as elsewhere in the city, cultural negotiation was a delicate matter. Beginning in the 1930s, the park hosted the annual Chinatown Community Play Day, which featured ball games, foot races, Chinese boy scout troops, and healthiest baby contests.  In 1939, the New York Times commended the field day activities, suggesting that they were “symbolic of Chinese assimilation in America.” Such offensive attitudes toward the presence of a sizeable and culturally distinctive Chinese community were legally reinforced by exclusionary laws that kept Chinese immigration to a predominantly male trickle for the first half of the 20th century. But in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted quotas based on national origins, and Chinese immigration to New York City soared. Although the new legislation could not mandate official attitude shifts, five years later the Chinese American Arts Council (a unit of the Chinatown Planning Council) created the Chinatown Outdoor Summer Festival to celebrate the strength of the distinctive and diverse Chinese community. In 1980, on the festival’s tenth anniversary, the program featured Chinese performances that ranged from traditional opera to modern pop. Program director Alan Chow suggested that the free festival, held locally in Columbus Park, offered Chinatown residents a familiar but specially-coordinated opportunity to enjoy Chinese pageantry that was both conventional and innovative. Chow acknowledged that the festival was particularly significant for the many Chinatown residents who endured arduous, 10-12 hour workdays, and who were inclined to deposit their earnings in the bank rather than spend on luxuries like entertainment.

Indeed, numerous garment factories that were priced out of Midtown in the1950s had moved to Chinatown, where the industry flourished for decades on the backs of ranks of working-class women, many of whom had immigrated from Hong Kong and southern China. Nearly all of Chinatown’s garment workers belonged to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) Local 23-25, which organized Chinatown’s factories into a largely unionized job market. The union negotiated wage contracts every three years, and members received holiday pay and vacation, health and death benefits.

However, by the early 1980s, industry-wide outsourcing to offshore factories meant that Chinatown’s New York contractors were forced to accept lower prices. In 1982 many of these Chinese contractors began to refuse the terms and contracts negotiated by the manufacturers and the union, and instead demanded that workers give up holidays and other benefits. On June 24, ILGWU Local 23-25 used Columbus Park as a rallying site for a massive strike through which they demanded better contracts and fought benefit cutbacks. Close to 20,000 workers convened in the park, and after a series of speeches on the trajectory of the industry and the union, the workers marched through the streets of Chinatown. In the days that followed, the union secured pledges from contractors that they would sign the union contract. While most contractors acquiesced, several refused. On June 29, a second rally of 20,000 workers took place at Columbus Park, and by the end of the day the workers won the strike. Labor scholar Katie Quan has noted that the strike “changed the community’s understanding of the relationship between race, class and gender,” and ultimately, the union’s leaders provided greater resources to its Chinese members and became more active in the Chinese community. 

Since the end of the 20th century, Columbus Park has received new playground equipment and a basketball court, and the north-end pavilion has been nicely restored. From early morning to nightfall, you can still find representatives from every generation engaging in myriad activities, including individual tai chi practice, five-on-five basketball games, and Chinese chess or card games that are played by a small group, but which are observed and refereed by crowds of onlookers. During the 2002 blackout, the most committed players stayed overnight and played by candle light. And while the park is primarily used by the surrounding community, many of the regular don’t live in the neighborhood, but instead commute from Queens, Brooklyn or even New Jersey. In 2003, the New York Times’ Andrea Elliott called Columbus Park “Chinatown’s communal backyard.” Over a decade later, the park seems to be as popular and beloved a community resource as ever.