The Fascinating History of Schiff Fountain in Seward Park

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Image of Schiff Fountain from “Parks Without Borders” presentation.

Big changes are, of course, coming to Seward Park.  A $6.4 million renovation through the city’s Parks Without Borders program is expected to be completed before the end of this year. Meanwhile, the Seward Park Conservancy is launching a fundraising campaign to restore the historic Jacob H. Schiff Fountain, which borders the park on Essex Street.

The other night, the conservancy and DLJ Capital Partners (owners of the Jarmulowsky building) hosted a shindig in the bamboo garden across from the park. Those in attendance were treated to an oral history of the fountain from Andrew Fairweather, senior librarian at the Seward Park Library. With his permission, we’re publishing his presentation here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Conservancy and/or making a donation, visit the organization’s website.

 


 

Photo by: Aime Dupont [Public domain].

Photo by: Aime Dupont [Public domain].

The history of the fountain in Seward Park might as well begin with some background on the person responsible for its construction—Jacob Schiff.

Jacob Henry Schiff was born on January 10th of 1847 in Frankfurt, Germany, attending Jewish schools until the age of 14, when he began a business apprenticeship with his brother-in-law. In 1865 he emigrated to the United States, working briefly at a brokerage firm. A mere year later he formed his own firm called Schiff and Company. He became a naturalized citizen in 1870.[1]

Though an investment banker by trade, Schiff is remembered primarily for his philanthropic work as a champion for education and the arts, archaeology, Jewish causes, and the instruction of deaf mute children of poor families.

Upon his death at the age of 74 Schiff left a sum of a whopping $50,000,000—an amount which was actually smaller than the total sum he’d donated to charity during his lifetime. He was remembered as a man who “perhaps more than any other in the last quarter century, stood out as a benefactor of the Jewish race in America.” On the news of his death, 10,000 signs were printed in English and Hebrew and displayed in Jewish districts throughout the City.[2]

Though Schiff’s fountain now sits in Seward Park, it’s original location was in what is now Straus Square, named after the businessman, philanthropist, and promoter of milk pasteurization and distribution. Today, where the fountain once stood, is a monument to the men and women of the Lower East Side who served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.[3]

This small triangle of land at the intersection of Essex, Division, and Canal Streets had not always been known by the name of Nathan Straus. It was first known as Tweed Plaza, named after the infamous William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall, who was eventually jailed in the Ludlow Street Jail, a structure where the Seward Park High School Campus now sits (two structures which, oddly enough, look very similar…). Despite his arrest and fall from grace, the first project for this triangle was proposed by loyalists of the Tweed regime—a colossal brass statue of Boss Tweed as a “big Indian” figure, seated in an armchair holding in his right hand a scroll of the City charter and a pipe of peace in his left. On the armchair was to be inscribed,

I love it, I love it, and who shall dare

To chide me for loving this old arm chair.

An estimated sum of $50,000 was needed to be raised for construction.[4] Certainly, the irony of of raising a monument to a living personage on trial for being a municipal thief and democratic tyrant was not lost on many City reformers. Loyalists to Tweed, who were in great number on the Lower East Side, nevertheless insisted that, “no man is a thief until he has been convicted by the courts, and in the meantime Tweed is a loyal democratic statesman of unimpeachable partisan record.” Committees were assigned in several wards to raise funds for its construction. Apparently, the funds were amassed very quickly—indeed, nothing prevented the erection of the statue apart from his eventual exposure as a thief in a court of law.[5]

Most likely stemming from the controversy surrounding Tweed’s career, the square was at some point renamed Rutgers Square after the same Revolutionary War figure and landowner which Rutgers Street is named after. It was renamed Straus Square in 1931 months after the death of Nathan Straus.

Straus Square.

Straus Square.

In 1894, Schiff consulted with his friends on what would be of the most profitable sort of donation for the Lower East Side—it was agreed that a fountain would, more than anything, be of the greatest benefit to the people of this section. Plans were then drawn up by architect Arnold W. Brunner and approved by Vice President Noonan of the Board of Aldermen. Schiff therefore proposed to build a fountain in Rutgers Square to render a dreary spot on the East Side a beauty. The total cost was estimated at $65,000.[6]

On Tuesday, November 20th, 1894 the Board of Aldermen adopted a resolution granting Schiff permission to erect the fountain, and a week later, at the request of Judge Joseph E. Newburger, mayor Thomas Francis Gilroy affixed his signature to the said resolution on the 28th of that very same month.[7]

Schiff’s fountain was not meant to be a monument in Schiff’s honor, but a gift—that the fountain did not bear Schiff’s name testified to this. As a book to a friend or lover, the fountain was inscribed to reflect that the gift was given in “this year of our grace, 1895.” A second inscription was drawn from Exodus xvii, 6:– “And there shall come water out of it that the people may drink.” As soon as Brunner’s firm, Brunner & Tryon, had finished the granite and bronze fountain, a landmark which, including the seating, covered an entire radius of 60 feet plus five feet of narrow pavement, the proverbial keys to the fountain were immediately turned over to the City. In stature the two bronze basins were 22 feet by 10 feet in diameter, with drinking fountains hewn out of large pieces of granite, complete with mouldings that produced a “good effect of light and shade.” The fountain featured grotesque masks at the spouts as well as four bronze appliqués, combining marine shells and dolphins. The water lines from the spouts were particularly beautiful, having been carefully studied from Italian models with falling spray and denser water volumes which were said to accentuate the design of the structure.[8]

Photograph by Edwin Levick, National Geographic Creative; April 1916.

Photograph by Edwin Levick, National Geographic Creative; April 1916.

Yet, it was not always a given that the City would commit to connecting their water mains with the fountain. Indeed, a push for water needed to be made. Citizens of the City Vigilance League demanded that the fountain be connected to the City’s water mains, stating that—

The slight cost of furnishing water cannot under any pretense be compared to the pleasure and recreation that will be afforded the overcrowded and hard-working people who gather around the fountain in an endeavor to secure a breath of cool air. 

To reject the magnanimous gift of Mr. Schiff is not only an insult to the kind donor, but also to the thousands whom he has endeavored to benefit.[9]

Perhaps the chronic distrust in human nature was the only thing preventing an all out celebration of Schiff’s commitment in stone. Authorities were suspicious the fountain would quickly serve as a trash receptacle, plugging up with banana peels and other such refuse. Within two weeks into the water being turned on these grim predictions were realized. Two policemen were tasked to, “keep the unlucky fountain in working order” but to no avail.

That this was of tremendous concern to the neighborhood was apparent, with leading figures in the neighborhood determined to fight for the fountain’s dignity—Lilian Wald, nurse and founder of Henry Street Settlement took it upon herself to arrange for the protection of the crown jewel of Rutgers Square. Soliciting help from boys from the Settlement house, a day-and-night watchman’s league of sorts was formed to preserve order at the site of the fountain. This solicitation was apparently very well received by the boys who congregated with the City Vigilance League and Good Government club to discuss best approaches.

These meetings resulted in the creation of the Fountain League. The League volunteers all wore badges to indicate membership, which totaled 100 boys over 12 years old, furnished with officer titles such as President (Joseph Goldstein), vice president (Morris Frankel), clerk (S. Joseph), treasurer (David Widrowitz), sargeant-at-arms (E. Frank),  and assistant sargeant-at-arms (Jacob Wisensky). At the time of inception there was even talk of the boys forming a uniformed cadet corps.

President Roosevelt of the police commission promised to aid the boys in their commitment. Colonel Waring of the street cleaning department, knowing full-well that the protection of the fountain was a formidable undertaking, promised to provide two steel cans for the deposit of the “dead cats, old rags, banana and orange peels and other flotsam and jetsam that in the past mysteriously found their way into the recesses of the Rutgers Square fountain.”

Whether or not the League resolved the issues with fountain cleanliness remains unanswered, though it is without doubt that the experiment was watched with much interest by Lower East Siders.[10

On occasion, the fountain could be a lifesaver—in 1909 a taylor by the name of Samuel Rosenberg of No. 141 Delancey Street was sitting in Essex Market court to discover that, somehow, his trousers had caught fire. Bystanders stood by and gawked as Mr. Rosenberg ran down Essex Street in what must’ve been a mad panic as flames gushed from his right hip pocket. A little girl yelled, “Mister, you’re burning!”, to which Mr. Rosenberg yelled back, “I know it better than you—to the water for mine.” He then dove into the water with just his head poking out for air. A friend fished him out and asked him what on earth he wanted doing a thing like that. “Another pair of pants,” replied Rosenberg, vowing never to carry loose matches in his pockets again.[11]

NYC Parks Photo Archive/Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments.

NYC Parks Photo Archive/Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments.

The fountain sat at the center of a hub of Yiddish newspaper press whose dealers all congregated around Rutgers Square.[12] The fountain was surely useful as a way of cooling off during the harsh summers, especially in these days where air-conditioning was not a feature of everyday life. While photographic and video evidence exists of children bathing in the fountain, it is suggested that this was not always allowed, as two boys, Solomon Liebowitz and Samuel Mulbofsky found in 1904 when they were singled out amongst a group of lads who thought they’d sneak a dip in the East Side oasis. Harry J. Solomon of No. 71 Forsyth Street, seeing the commotion, called for the police. The boys began to scurry when the policeman approached. They quickly and indiscriminately grabbed whatever clothes they could find, leaving Liebowitz and Mulbofsky without a set of their own. Surely mortified, the pair sought refuge under a bush. The policeman placed them under arrest, covering them with a piece of canvass until clothing could be found.[13]

Commotion around the fountain often breached the quotidian affairs of Lower East Siders. It will probably come as no surprise to most that Rutgers Square, and the fountain by extension, was a center for radicalism in New York. Even the Seward Park children’s librarian in 1917 made repeated references in the department journal to Socialist meetings in Rutgers Square. On one occasion, a May Day parade was being planned to take place in Union Square where Veterans of Foreign Wars were to assemble to celebrate “Americanization Day” along with 20,000 supporters and Russians sympathetic to the pre-Soviet royalist regime. The gathering was to feature denunciations of Communism as a matter of course. In a counter-assembly the 1,800 Communists gathered at our very own Rutgers Square, spilling over into the Seward Park forum, to march over to Union Square for a demonstration at 3pm when the Americanization assembly was set to disperse. The Communists promised a peaceful gathering.[14]

Not all meetings were peaceful. In an area that was at a disadvantage to much of the rest of the City, the Lower East Side was a political powderkeg. Such was the case when the Industrial Workers of the World vocally denounced the Mayor and the Vanderbilt, Astor and Morgan families after 191 of their comrades had been arrested. They vowed to raid churches, restaurants, and hotels until all the unemployed had been housed and fed by the State.[15] Whatever was meant by “raiding” was not clear from the brief article reporting on the incident.

Schiff Fountain, Seward Park, 2017.

Schiff Fountain, Seward Park, 2017.

Yes, the fountain which sat in the Square must’ve seen plenty of action, as it gushed forth during the period where the Lower East Side would reach its highest density in 1910. From buying and selling to demonstrations and strikes, to riots, to the arrest of anarchist Emma Goodman herself… yet the neighborhood would calm down considerably as it depopulated to almost half its size in the 1930s. This was not the only change the 1930s would bring. A subway would be built connecting Essex/Delancey Street to East Broadway, requiring extensive tunneling that would take many structures in its wake—the old P.S. 62, and the Seward Park forum being among the notable. The fountain, too, would need to go—but instead of being demolished completely, it and its stone benches would be moved to their current location in Seward Park in 1931. It is unknown to me whether or not the fountain ever again circulated water but it is generally accepted that in the second half of the 20th century the structure suffered the same fate that Seward Park and many City parks suffered—neglect and disrepair.

Though the park would finally receive a much-needed renovation in 1999, nothing would restore it to its former glory. Perhaps the current “Parks Without Borders” renovation can serve to renew our commitment to the fountain, as the fountain was Schiff’s commitment to the Lower East Side itself.

Rendering of proposed Schiff Fountain restoration.

Rendering of proposed Schiff Fountain restoration by Studio Castellano.

 

[1] Schiff, Jacob Henry, Best, Gary Dean (American National Biograhpy) [1999]

https://doi-org.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0802117

[2] EAST SIDE MORNING FOR JACOB H. SCHIFF. New York Herald, Mon, Sept 27, 1920 Page 7 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019

[3] https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/straus-square/history

[4] New York Herald, The Proposed Monument to Mr. Tweed. Jan 21, 1871 page 4 iss 21 vol XXXVI

[5] Oregonian. Monuments to Incapacity. Jan 11, 1889

[6] New York Herald. Nov 28, 1894. Page 10 Issue 332

[7] To Accept Mr. Schiff’s Gift. New York Times.Nov 28, 1894

[8] The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts. Jul 20, 1895; 24, 700 Pg. 45

[9] KING’S BRIDGE ROAD GRANT, New York Times Aug 21, 1895.

[10] TO GUARD A FOUNTAIN.  The Wilkes-Barre News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) Sat, Oct 5, 1895, Page 6 Downloaded on Oct 11, 2019

[11] TAILOR’S TROUSERS AFIRE IN COURT. New York Tribune (New York, New York) Tue, Jul 20 1909, Page 12 Downloaded on Oct 11

[12] Off the record. Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) Fri, Aug 21, 1959 Page 9 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019 as remembered by Nathan Ziprin

[13] Clothed like Adam. The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) Fri, Sep 2, 1904 Downloaded on Oct 11 2019

[14] NEW YORK POLICE READY FOR MAY DAY. United Press

[15] MASS MEETING IN NEW YORK THREATENS TO MAKE RAIDS.

Groundbreaking at Seward Park: $6.4 Million Revamp Underway

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All smiles this past Friday morning as Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and Lower East Side community leaders celebrated the start of a major renovation project at Seward Park.

The historic public space, the oldest municipal playground in the country, is receiving a $6.4 million revamp as part of the city’s “Parks Without Borders” program.  When the project is completed months from now, there will be a new plaza in front of the Seward Park Library, an expanded garden, lowered fencing, new plantings and new perimeter paving.

Friday’s groundbreaking was attended by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Margaret Chin, members of Community Board 3 and local community organizers.

There was praise all around for the Seward Park Conservancy, which led a grass roots campaign for city funding.  Before the groundbreaking, Silver noted that he and the mayor came to Seward Park in 2014 to announce his appointment as commissioner. At the time, said Silver, he noticed the high, imposing fencing around the park, and thought the space could be a lot more inviting. Parks Without Borders has since become the commissioner’s pet project.

There is, of course, still lots of work to be done in Seward Park. The conservancy continues to advocate for the renovation of the broken down Schiff Fountain and the reactivation of a community space inside the comfort station.

Celebrate Groundbreaking for Seward Park Renovation Friday Morning

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Much of Seward Park has been shrouded in construction fencing in recent weeks, as the city begins a major renovation project there. On Friday morning, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver comes to the Lower East Side to celebrate the groundbreaking.

Seward Park was selected for the mayor’s “Parks Without Borders” program, which is intended to more effectively integrate parks into surrounding communities. Seward was selected in large part due to strong community support during a citywide competition for funding. The $6.4 million project includes new pavement, curbs, benches, game tables, drinking fountains, trees and other plantings.

The groundbreaking will take place 9 a.m. Friday at East Broadway and Essex streets. Community members are encouraged to attend. RSVP to special.events@parks.nyc.gov or by calling 212-408-0111.  For more information, visit the Seward Park Conservancy, which led the grass roots campaign to refurbish the park.

Read our previous coverage here.

“Singin’ in the Rain” Tuesday Night in Seward Park

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it’s been a soggy summer in New York, so maybe it’s appropriate that tomorrow night’s film in Seward Park is the 1952 classic, Singin’ in the Rain.

The movie gets underway at dusk. Bring your own chair or blanket, and a picnic. Popcorn will be provided by the Metrograph movie theater, which is sponsoring the film along with the Seward Park Conservancy and Henry Street Settlement.

Cloudy skies in the forecast for tomorrow evening, but at the moment, thunderstorms aren’t expected to roll in until later in the night.

Here’s the Remaining Schedule For “Round Robin” Studio in Seward Park

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Earlier this month we told you about the ArtBuilt Mobile Studio in Seward Park, which is featuring a trilingual newspaper project called Round Robin. Through Aug. 15, local artists Sue Jeong Ka and Mélissa Emily Liu are hosting open studio hours and a variety of workshops. The organizers just passed on a bit of information about the upcoming programs. Here’s their invitation to the community:

Join Art Parley, ArtBuilt Mobile Studio in the Park’s artists-in-residence in Seward Park (in front of the library), for the last few weeks of free events and workshops this summer. Neighbors in the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Two Bridges are invited to take part in a creative forum and conversations around immigration, neighborhood change, and cultural heritage which will inspire contents for a new issue of their trilingual newspaper to be published in Fall 2018. Through their Round Robin community newspaper headquarters in the mobile studio, artists, organizers, organizations and groups, and neighbors from communities around the park have been sharing their work and stories through free programs for kids, families, and adults. All are welcome to participate, through creative activities that include art, performance, writing, and storytelling. From now until August 15! For more information and a detailed program schedule of events, please visit https://www.facebook.com/ArtBuiltMobileStudios/.

On Facebook, flyers are available in English, Spanish and Chinese. The project is a collaboration among ArtBuilt, NYC Parks, Queens Museum, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Immigrant Social Services, and Seward Park Conservancy. Support was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, Surdna Foundation, and The New York Community Trust.

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Artists Invited to Apply For Community-Focused Residency in Seward Park

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If you’re an artist with a passion for community engagement, here’s an opportunity you’ll want to consider.

Applications are now being accepted for Studio in the Park, a six-week residency program located in a 150 square foot mobile studio. This year, one of the studios will be located in Seward Park on the Lower East Side.

The program is a collaboration among ArtBuilt, the Queens Museum and the NYC Parks Department. Local partners this year include the Seward Park Conservancy and Immigrant Social Services.

According to the project page, projects should:

“…serve the diverse immigrant communities that surround the park, which have become threatened by a climate of increasing xenophobia and shifting immigration enforcement.”

“…address ways in which neighborhoods adjacent to park are changing in response to rising rents and property values.”

“…connect with the (often varied) cultural traditions of communities surrounding the park.”

The application deadline is Monday, April 23. More info here.

Wizard of Oz Comes to Seward Park July 15

Seward Park movie night, July 2016.

Seward Park movie night, July 2016.

For a second year, the Seward Park Conservancy, the Metrograph theater and the Henry Street Settlement are partnering for free movies in Seward Park.

The featured presentation coming up on Saturday, July 15 is the Wizard of Oz. The film begins, as you might have guessed, at dusk (8:30ish). In the summer of 2016, people began to gather in the park pretty early, so you’ll want to keep that in mind. You’ll want to bring a blanket or folding chairs.

The Metrograph will be providing free popcorn.

 

Seward Park Conservancy Hosts Fundraiser Jan. 26

Seward Park, October 2016.

Seward Park, October 2016.

Some noticeable improvements will be coming to Seward Park in the next couple of years thanks to a $6.4 million infusion from the city’s Parks Without Borders Program. The Seward Park Conservancy wants to build on the momentum from the project (who wants to see the restoration of the Schiff Fountain on Essex Street?!)

Coming up on Thursday, Jan. 26, the organization will be hosting a fundraiser in support of its mission. You’ll be able to meet the board of directors, learn about upcoming park projects and show your support ofor this historic public space. Tickets are $35. Click here for more details.

Public Input Session For Seward Park Renovations Takes Place Nov. 14

Renderings by: Studio Castellano for Seward Park Conservancy.

Renderings by: Studio Castellano for Seward Park Conservancy.

You’ll want to save the date — Nov. 14 — for a Seward Park public visioning session. This past spring, the Lower East Side park was one of eight winners in the city’s Parks Without Borders competition. The award recipients will be splitting $40 million for renovations to widely used public spaces. The local campaign, spearheaded by the Seward Park Conservancy, was focused on improvements to the area in front of the Seward Park Library, the dilapidated fountain on Essex Street and Straus Square, on the park”s southern boundary. A location is not yet set for the public input event. We’ll let you know when we have more information.

Summer Movies in Seward Park: The Wizard of Oz is Tonight

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During the summer months, the Seward Park Conservancy, Metrograph Theater and Henry Street Settlement are teaming up for special outdoor screenings. The first one is coming up Tuesday, July 12, when The Wizard of Oz comes to the park. Admission is free and there will also be free popcorn. Screenings start at dusk.

If you can’t wait until the 12th, the Metrograph is definitely getting into the summer spirit. Movies scheduled in the Ludlow Street theaters over the long holiday weekend include: Dog Day Afternoon (Friday), Summer of Sam (Sunday) and Do the Right Thing (Monday, July 4). You can see the full schedule here.

Renderings: One Vision of An Improved Seward Park

Renderings from: Seward Park Conservancy.

Renderings from: Seward Park Conservancy.

Seward Park, home of America’s first municipal playground, has a lot going for it. But could it be improved? Members of the Seward Park Conservancy say, “Yes!” This is why they’re pushing hard for new city funding through a competition called Parks Without Borders.

Last week, officials with the Parks Department came to Community Board 3’s Parks Committee meeting to help local residents envision how the public space could be transformed. The $40 million NYC initiative is meant to enhance the connections between local parks and surrounding communities. Through the elimination of high fences, the renovation of adjacent spaces and other design innovations, “Parks Without Borders” seeks to improve accessibility.

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A new vision for Staus Square.

The Seward Park Conservancy was at the meeting in force, encouraging locals to vote for Seward Park in an online poll. They also passed out a brochure to get people thinking about what might be possible; the renderings included here are just ideas, nothing official. If the Lower East Side is chosen, the Parks Department will return to the community board for a full-scale visioning session. In the brochure, the conservancy suggested:

–Transforming the plaza in from of the public library, greening the space and offering accessibility to the rest of the park.

–Renovating Straus Square on East Broadway, creating a new gateway to the park and removing fencing.

–Revitalizing the promenade along Essex Street, including the broken-down Schiff Fountain.

If you would like to vote for Seward Park, follow this link. You have until Feb. 28. The Parks Department hopes to announce the winning projects in the spring.

 

There’s Still Time to Vote For Seward Park in “Parks Without Borders” Competition

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Seward Park border along Essex Street. File photo.

As the temperature dips below freezing this week, recreating in Seward Park might not be the first thing on your mind. But it is, in fact, a very  good time to stay focused on improvements in the historic community space. This is because the city will be making some important funding decisions in the weeks ahead that could transform Seward Park.

As we reported last month, the Parks Department has launched “Parks Without Borders,” a $50 million initiative aimed at improving “entrances, edges, and park-adjacent spaces” in eight public green spaces throughout the five boroughs. The funding decisions will be made. in part, based on feedback received from the public. You can weigh in until Feb. 28 via this link.

Last month, Community Board 3 approved a resolution in support of Seward Park. It noted that the park is the only one in Community District 3 eligible based on very specific criteria. The resolution also pointed out that NYC Parks Department officials have already “indicated (that) Seward Park would be an extremely viable candidate for the program.” There will be a presentation on the initiative and a chance for community feedback at CB3’s January Parks Committee meeting. It will be held next week, Thursday the 14th, at the BRC Senior Center, 30 Delancey St., at 6:30 p.m. The Seward Park Conservancy is urging local residents to attend as a show of support for funding on the Lower East Side.

Parks Department officials have said at least one park in each borough would receive funding. The winning locations will be announced in the spring.

For many years, people have criticized the high fencing around Seward Park, which makes access difficult from Essex Street. Park advocates have talked about new landscaping and seating in front of the Seward Park Library, located just to the east of the park. There’s also been talk about improvements at nearby Straus Square on East Broadway and reactivating a building within the park now used to store maintenance equipment.

The Parks Without Borders website is a bit cumbersome. If you would like to nominate Seward Park, check out this “how-to” guide from the Seward Park Conservancy.

 

Seward Park Garden is Now Open on Some Weekday Afternoons

Q&A: Seward Park Conservancy Holds Saturday Event, Plants Seeds For Future

“It’s My Park Day” at Seward Park May 16