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Parks in New York City: Historic Photos from the Museum of the City of New York

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New York City is home to more than 1,700 parks covering approximately 29,000 acres of land. The first park, Bowling Green Park, was established in 1733 on what had been a parade ground and marketplace. It was leased to three prominent citizens whose surnames live on in downtown Manhattan: Peter Jay, John Chambers, and Peter Bayard. These gentlemen paid the symbolic rent of one peppercorn annually and agreed to plant grass and trees and maintain the park.

The conservation movement that developed across the United States in the mid-and-late 19th century advocated preserving open space amidst rapid industrialization, expansion, and population growth. It was championed by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The development of parks in New York City mirrored the creation of the National Parks system across the country.

In 1856, the same year the city finished purchasing the land that would become Central Park, then-mayor Fernando Wood and Street Commissioner Joseph S. Taylor were appointed the first Commissioners of the Park. Central Park was completed in 1871.

The Department of Parks of the City of New York, the agency that still oversees parks and recreation in the city, was formed in 1898 when Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens were consolidated into New York.

The city's parks increased in number and evolved over the next several decades, as pictured in the photographs below. The city continues to develop new parks, including the recent high-profile addition of the High Line.

The Museum of the City of New York is in the midst of a multi-year project to digitize its holdings, beginning with photography and works on paper. Explore more than 62,000 historic images of New York City in our online Collections Portal. We plan to upload more than 20,000 additional images at the end of the summer, including ones from our prints, drawings and maps collections.

Much of the information above and in the captions below was gleaned from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Website, an excellent and wide-ranging resource for the city's green spaces.

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