I began this project four years ago with a post about Collect Pond Park in lower Manhattan, near the notorious old Five Points slum. I didn't know that part of the island too well (still don't, to be honest), and I didn't know there were a couple of other parks just a few blocks away. New York is always springing surprises on me.
I visited Columbus Park on a recent weekday afternoon. In spite of the hour, the park's three and a quarter acres were thronged with people, mostly residents of the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood.
Chinatown explains why the statue is not of Columbus, but of Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China's first president.
Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. By that time, Mulberry Bend Park had already been open for 28 years, located, no surprise, on a site called Mulberry Bend (Mulberry Street bends there, wouldn't you know it).
Calvert Vaux himself designed the park. In 1911 the city renamed it Columbus Park, I suppose because of the Italian immigrant movement that had by that time created the adjacent Little Italy neighborhood.
No longer a neighborhood, Little Italy is a sort of Italian restaurant theme park along a couple of blocks of Mulberry Street. Neighborhoods come and go, of course. But Chinatown, by contrast, doesn't seem to be going anywhere; in fact there are now several Chinatowns in the five boroughs. The most famous one remains the Manhattan Chinatown. In Columbus Park, a bunch of men were clustered around a game table at which two men played what I think is Xiangqi (Chinese chess).
The limestone recreation center, built in 1934, is now, according to the Parks Department website, "a comfort station." The folks lounging on the upper level decks sure looked comfortable. It's a handsome building. I think Vaux would have been proud.
Unless, that is, the parks website is referring to the building pictured below, which is in fact a bathroom building near the playground:
I don't usually bother taking pictures of the playgrounds in the parks I visit. But it was interesting to see how many more adults there were in the "adult" section than there were kids in the playground on this afternoon. Of course, it was a school day, but still. There were so many people I had trouble remembering it was a weekday.
The playground covers what used to be a central grassy area, as related in this informative post on the Placematters website, a resource I only just discovered while researching this post. It quotes Jacob Riis, who had earlier devoted a chapter of his classic How the Other Half Lives to Mulberry Bend, recounting his first visit to the new park in 1900: "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!"