Tribeca Park: The Story of the Greening and Growing of a Little Oasis

In 1939, when this photograph was taken, Tribeca Park, then known as Beach Street Park, was little more than a concrete-topped triangle with some benches and a handful of trees. Courtesy New York Public Library

Jul. 08, 2019

This article first appeared in the July, 2009 print edition of The Tribeca Trib.

Tribeca Park is the handsome, tree-filled, welcoming space near Canal Street between Sixth Avenue and Beach and Walker streets. How does one explain, then, the photograph above, taken in 1939, which shows a much smaller space in the same location—that’s the American Thread Building on the far right—and bounded in the foreground not by Sixth Avenue but by a street that turns out actually to be West Broadway?

Back in those days it was called Beach Street Park (for the street on the right) and this smaller triangle dates all the way back to 1810. The name “Beach” is a corruption of Bache, as the street was named in the 1790s for Paul Bache, a fellow who was lucky enough to marry into the Lispenard family, a big name hereabouts. (This part of Tribeca was once the heart of the soggy area known as Lispenard Meadows, and not only Beach and Lispenard Streets but Leonard and Thomas Streets as well commemorate members of this extended and well-to-do clan.)

For much of the 19th century the park was a pleasant, tree-filled refuge. In the 1870s, however, it was blighted by the construction along West Broadway of an elevated railroad—a line that uptown became the Sixth Avenue El—that not only was noisy but cast deep shadows over the park itself. Decade after decade the park remained marginal and borderline unattractive. Only in the 1930s, when the elevated railroad came down, did it begin to regain any of its former charm.

At some point after that—it is not clear just when—the park abruptly became much larger. Just as the actual date is unclear, the precise reason for its growth does not seem to be in the public record. But it is reasonable to suppose that the cause had to do with traffic control. Both West Broadway and Sixth Avenue had always been two-way streets, but when Sixth became solely northbound and West Broadway southbound an impossible situation came into being.

Because Walker Street is eastbound, a motorist on Sixth trying to get onto West Broadway would have to make a hairpin turn where the eastbound Beach and West Broadway came together. The resulting snarls would have defied sanity.

The solution: close off West Broadway above Walker Street, and extend the park eastward by linking it to a traffic island that existed on Sixth. The new territory was referred to by the city as “Park Addition.”

More years passed, and meanwhile the neighborhood was changing from commercial to residential. Now it was part of what came to be called Tribeca. So in 1985 the city gave the bloated Beach Street Park a new name: Tribeca Park.

It was not much to look at. The new space had acquired a few trees and some benches but there were no plants and the overall effect was unappealing. In the 1990s the Parks Department installed a planting strip along Sixth Avenue and in the old triangle, which only helped a little.

Enter someone who decided to try to improve things: Julie Matsumoto, who moved with her husband into the American Thread Building in 1999. A graphic designer, she was instantly offended by what she saw across the street, and she found that her building mates agreed.

“In the elevator,” she recalls, “they’d say ‘It’s in Tribeca but it sure isn’t a park.’”

Matsumoto made a scrapbook of possible plans and schemes that might work.

“Two weeks before 9/11,” she recalls, “I made my first call to the Parks Department. They were nice and they agreed something should be done, but what? And where would the money come from?”

A year or so later the money part was solved: post-9/11 funds would be available from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The Parks design people thereupon came up with a plan—which Julie and her friends thought was unacceptable. “It was a mess, totally wrong for the neighborhood,” she says.

More talks ensued. Finally a new plan was produced. It was much better, and she and her colleagues and neighbors accepted it.

In 2004 the newly rebuilt park, with ample planting areas, an attractive low fence, handsome lampposts, new benches and even its own water supply outlet, was officially dedicated. It was an instant success—and looked for all the world as if it had been there forever.