Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jones Wood Garden - The Almost Central Park

My Dad and I used to eat our lunch in this park. It is located between East 65th and East 66th Streets, and Lexington and Third Avenues, on the Upper East Side. We'd get rare roast beef sandwiches from one of the delis around the corner and then head for the park. He had almost all of the apartment buildings on those Avenues as clients in his air pollution control business, and we spent a lot of time in the area. But we were always too filthy to eat in a restaurant, so we would get sandwiches to go. This picture is courtesy of Suzy at

Jones Wood was the original location touted for Central Park. Owned by two familes, the Joneses and the Schermerhorns, the land originally extended from the East River to 3rd Avenue, and from East 66th to East 75th Streets. It totaled 150 acres. Although the area was sorely in need of a park, the Joneses and Schemerhorns had more grand ideas for their land, namely commercial and industrial uses. This was about 1848.

In 1851, James Beekman (as in Beekman Place) and Senator Hamilton Fish, had begun working towards building a "Central" Park to serve as "the lungs" of the city. By 1857 a committee had been established to determine the boundaries of the park and they hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to design the layout.

Meantime the Jones Wood location was increasingly being used as a kind of "speakers square", where people would go to vent their political frustrations. In May of 1865 the Workingmans Union had over 50,000 workers attend a picnic/rally in the park for support of the 8 hour work day. They had a great time, but they wouldn't get the 8 hour day for another 60 years or so.

Jones Wood was becoming "the place to go" for political rallies in the tears following the Civil War. The split amongst the Protestant and Catholic Irish was a source of concern when it came to holding onto political power, and Jones Wood played a part in this as well. In 1866 a wealthy New York merchant named William Roberts, (now there's a coincidence for you!) lead a demonstartion of 100,000 in Jones Wood. His plan was to take Canada and hold it hostage until Britian freed Ireland. It wasn't a bad idea, but it never came to fruition.

Central Park was open and doing well by now, with the gentrified portion of the city, but at first the working class did not use it that much, the rules were too strict and the place was not "user friendly" to them. For instance, singing in German was not allowed. This is just one of the ridiculous rules which were first imposed in the park. So people were still going to Jones Wood to gather as late as the 1880's. The Scottish Caledonian Society held their field and track meets there. The Germans used it as a beer garden for parties, as did the Irish.

Eventually the stores and factories along the East River gave way to the luxury high rises and brownstones that populate the area today. But in the midst of all of this there still stands one square block of Manhattan, undeveloped save for some benches and a fountain. Thanks to the stubborn greed of the Jonses and Schemerhorns, who would not sell the land for a park, as it wouldn't pay enough, we still have it, as a park, today.

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