By John Friia
On a bright spring day, the sun illuminates the iconic Met Life Tower, Eleven Madison and the new 60-story One Madison, buildings that frame one of the city’s oldest public spaces, Madison Square Park.
The park boasts 200 trees, manicured lawns, blooming tulips, eight historical statues and a fountain. Visitors strolling down the winding paths are drawn to the central lawn, a large area to relax and appreciate the scenery.
Nestled between 23rd and 26th Street along Madison and Fifth Avenue, the 6.2- acre park is the focal point of the Flatiron District, a center of food, advertising and fashion. “There are nearly 50,000 visitors that pass through the park every day,” said Eric Cova, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Madison Square Park Conversancy.
The park and the neighborhood have not always been so upscale. Dating back to 1686, Madison Square Park began as Potters Field, a cemetery for the poor and unidentified, according to the conservancy. When the city moved the burial ground to Washington Square Park, in 1797, an arsenal was built on the site. Eventually, after the arsenal burned down in the early 19th century, the land was leveled, seeded and grassed for the official opening of the park in 1847.
The reopening of the park marked a new era for what later became known as the Flatiron District, which got its name from the elegant 1902 landmark building at its southwestern edge, the first sky scraper north of 14th Street. Luxurious hotels and wealthy New Yorkers flocked to the area. “The park was surrounded by some of the most impressive residences,” Cova said. “It became a cultural center for the city.” The exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel, located on the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, was the pinnacle of New York high society. President Ulysses S. Grant started his presidential campaign at the hotel and author Gore Vidal used the hotel as the setting for his novel 1876. A few blocks south of the park on East 20th Street, President Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home still stands, and is now a National Historic Site.
For six years, starting in 1876, the torch from the Statue of Liberty was on display in Madison Square Park to raise funds for the construction of the base for the Statue of Liberty. For 50 cents, the equivalent of nearly $12 today, people were able to climb to the torch’s balcony. The area included the original Madison Square Garden before it relocated uptown in 1925. The park was also home to America’s first community Christmas tree in 1912, according to the conversancy.
During another renovation, in 1935, a statue of Dr. Charles Parkhurst, a prominent minister at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, was installed, new entrances were developed and more trees were planted.
But, years after the redesign, Madison Square Park once again began a period of decades-long decline and neglect. During the 1960’s, New York City enacted a policy that parks would be open 24 hours. Homeless people started to sleep in the park and during the 1980’s the city began housing welfare recipients in old area hotels.
The policy resulted in less park security and also paved the way for criminal behavior. Pavements began to crack, the famous statues deteriorated and drug dealers openly conducted business in the park.
“The 1960’s was the era of wide-open parks, and the results were disastrous. An unsupervised park is an open invitation to nocturnal abuse,” former Park Commissioner Henry J. Stern said in a 1984 interview with The New York Times. “It only takes a few to ruin it. A park is an outdoor living room, not a bedroom or bathroom.”
“I remember going to optometry school and I had to pass the park,” recalled Dr. Dana Green, a recent park visitor. “You could not pay me to walk through the park during that time, but today it is completely different.”
It was not until the 1990’s when the city, once again, sought to improve the park. A curfew closed it from midnight to 6 a.m. But with the city struggling financially, there was no money available for renovations.
A nonprofit conservancy was established to raise funds that support the park, according to Bill Lukashok, the former chairman of the parks committee on Community Board 5.
The nonprofit, City Parks Foundation, invested $2.5 million in 1998 to restore the park along with corporate sponsorship from nearby businesses, like Met Life Insurance and New York Life Insurance.
Madison Square Park Today
Since the multi-million dollar renovation, Madison Square Park has regained its cultural significance. Each year, the conservancy hosts numerous events that promote local businesses, culture and public engagement with the park.
Food aficionados flock to Madison Square Park to grab a bite at the original Shake Shack. First opened in 2004 Shake Shack was a hotdog vendor that evolved into a popular burger spot. “If it is a nice day outside expect to wait in line for at least 40 minutes,” said Soleil Sabalija, a frequent Shake Shack patron and park visitor. “My favorite thing to do in the park is grab a burger and just relax with friends.”
Foodies also enjoy the biannual, month-long food festival, Mad.Sq.Eats, which showcases some of New York’s finest restaurants and food stands. Many of the restaurants that participate in Mad.Sq.Eats are local eateries, including SD26, a new high-end Italian restaurant on 26th Street overlooking the northern part of the Park.
Owners Marisa and Tony May opened the restaurant five years ago, after selling their iconic Central Park South restaurant, San Domenico. “I remember as an NYU student and going to the bars on 23rd Street, we would see prostitutes and drug dealers in the park,” explained Marisa May. “I would have never dreamed of having a restaurant here, but I love this park and the area now.”
SD26 has an outdoor café that attracts the “young, food savvy and vibrant” that the May’s were counting on to build their business. “After studying the neighborhood we fell in love and signed a 20 year lease,” added May.
The conservancy also brings international artists to the park. For example, Mad.Sq.Art, a free contemporary art exhibit, introduced in 2004. Since then, the park has hosted over 30 exhibits. “Mad.Sq.Art is perhaps our most popular program from a global perspective,” said Eric Cova of the conservancy. “It draws in tourist and art lovers alike, along with anyone passing by who curiously stumble upon the exhibitions.”
Rachel Feinstein’s installation, Folly, is her first public art exhibit in the United States and comprises her largest sculptural works to date. Within the exhibit there are three follies–structures that were popular in the 18th and 19th century and were built solely for decorative purposes. The installation is currently on display until September 7th. “I have seen about five of the exhibits and each one is very interesting,” said Sabalija said. “It’s great to lay on the grass and just look at the sculptures with the city as the background.”
Madison Square Park also has been the backdrop for numerous television shows set in New York. CBS’ NYPD drama “Bluebloods” recently filmed a night scene with one of the lead main actors pursuing a suspect through the park. “It is a beautiful park, and extremely noticeable,” said Jennifer Hoopes, the Location Coordinator for Bluebloods who scouts areas to film scenes. “No matter where you film in the park it is always recognizable,” she explained.
The park is also unique in that, although it is relatively small, it is surrounded by some of the city’s most iconic skyscrapers. “It has an amazing view of the Empire State Building—so it has the quintessential New York view,” said Sabalija stated. Added Ander McMerp, who was sitting on one of the Park benches recently: “I love that it isn’t overwhelming like Central Park. I come here and enjoy the peace and nature, while still being in the city. It somehow remains so peaceful.”