Among the most helpful Twitter accounts that relates to New York City history is @Discovering_NYC, run by a local tour guide who shares old photos, maps, and illustrations of the city’s past. Over the weekend, it posted a map of Lispenard’s Meadow, the long-forgotten wetland in what is now the Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
At the turn of the 19th century, the meadow was on the northern periphery of New York City. Above is an 1800 illustration of the meadow by Alexander Anderson, looking towards the Hudson River. It contained three creeks within it, occluding one that drained from Collect Pond. That creek became the route of Canal Street.
Where it is
The meadow takes its name from a French Huguenot family that settled in New York after fleeing from religious persecution. Like the Jews, Walloons, dissident puritans, and Quakers, the Huguenots joined early Dutch settlers in a colony that valued religious tolerance.
On the 1767 map above, we see the M. Lispenard residence on a knob of dry land between the meadow and Hudson River. Its address is the Road to Greenwich that is today’s Greenwich Avenue, which ran along the water’s edge of the Hudson River. This street was added to the maps by the Common Council in 1729. Construction began in 1737, with completion in 1797. It was extended to Christopher Street in 1809 and today has its northern end at Gansevoort Street, continuing north as Ninth Avenue. With such a long construction schedule, it was the Second Avenue Subway of its time, creating a new route north to supplement the heavily used Bowery on the island’s east side.
The Fresh Water at the bottom of the map is Collect Pond, which provided drinking water to colonial New York. At the time, the meadow was regarded as a nuisance and the city was pleased when the Lispenards proposed filling the swamp and having it developed.
Like Greenwich Greet, the draining of Lispenard’s Meadow was a project long in the making. Anthony Rutgers, who was married to a Lispenard, received permission to drain the swamp in 1733, but it wasn’t until 1805 that a ditch was dug along what is now canal Street, designed to drain the meadow and Collect Pond further inland. In the undated illustration above from the NYPL Digital Collections, we see the route of Canal Street looking west. On the hilltop is the Lispenard mansion, which was demolished by 1813. 101 years later, a plaque was installed on the corner of Desbrosses and Hudson Streets by the Sons of the American Revolution. Only a two-block street with the family’s name keeps them on the map today.
Stone Bridge on Canal Street
The canal ran in a straight line from what is today’s Baxter Street towards the Hudson River. With the elimination of Lispenard’s Meadow, Broadway was extended to supplement the Bowery and Greenwich Street as a northward route. At Canal Street it had a stone bridge next to a tavern.
By 1817, the canal had served its purpose and was filled, accounting for the unusual width of Canal Street to this day. I cannot say with certainty whether any traces of this bridge remain underneath the heavily trafficked intersection of Broadway and Canal. One may feel rumbling standing on this corner, not for any fault lines but because the Broadway subway line runs underneath.
A century after the canal’s elimination ,artist Jay Van Everen was inspired by the 1865 illustration of the Stone Bridge to create decorative tile work for the Canal Street subway station featuring the bridge.
Most of Van Everen’s tiles have been removed from the station in favor of Chinatown-themed public art, but reproductions of the Stone Bridge tiles are on sale at the New York Transit Museum Store.
The 1894 Map
The map shared by @discovering_NYC is from 1894, showing the street grid atop Lispenard’s Meadow.
On its north side is a tributary brook originating from the appropriately-named Spring Street. Note the “Negroe’s Plantation” here. Although the Lispenards owned a few slaves, this plantation was a farm owned by freed blacks who were given land in what is now Greenwich Village in the 1640s. It must have been strange for the landowning blacks to till their land within sight of the Lispenards’ enslaved blacks across the meadow, such was the situation in colonial New York. Notice how their farm was located atop marshland, an inferior place to farm in comparison to the surrounding white-owned farms.
A southern tributary marked as Kalch Hoek flows on what is now West Broadway, while the main brook through the meadow matches with Canal Street.
Parks Remember the Canal: Canal Park
The streets of Tribeca run in a perpendicular direction to the Hudson shoreline, extending into the water as piers. The city grew by filling in the water between the piers, extending Manhattan by two blocks from Greenwich street to West Street. In contrast, Canal Street defies the grid by following the path of its long-buried canal. Along the way, parcels that were too small to develop were set aside as parks. The oldest of these is Canal Park, located at Canal Street and the Westside Highway.
A plaque at this park claims it as one of the city’s oldest public spaces by virtue of the Dongan Charter of April 27, 1686 that formally established the city of New York. The document gave the city’s Common Council jurisdiction over “waste, vacant, unpatented and unappropriated lands.” This included the shoreline of Hudson River where the city later expanded through land reclamation. In 1833, the triangle bound by Canal Street, West Street and Hoboken Street was developed as a public market.
In 1860, Clinton Market was moved to the north side of Canal Street. The vacant triangle was redesigned in 1871 as a fenced-in green space, as shown in that year’s First Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks. A flower market kept a lively presence on the sidewalks surrounding the park. In 1888, Parks landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons, Jr. laid out a curving path with benches through Canal Park. As the neighborhood became more industrial, the park received less attention.
The park scene above is from the 1894 book In Old New York by Thomas A. Janvier.
Disappearance and Return of Canal Park
During the construction of the Holland Tunnel in 1921, the park was used as a staging area. A decade later, construction crews returned to building the elevated Miller Highway above West Street and from that point the park remained in use as a parking lot for city vehicles. A dramatic arch span crossed over Canal Street, its buried canal, and below them, the Holland Tunnel. A victim of deferred maintenance, the highway fell into disrepair and was abandoned on December 16, 1973.
At the end of the 20th century, the former Westside highway was redesigned as a boulevard, with the vacant shipping piers transformed into Hudson River Park. As the neighborhood became residential again, the Canal West Coalition found the 1871 plan of the site and lobbied to restore the sanitation parking lot as a green space. Relying on the 1888 plan, the park reopened to the public on October 21, 2005.
Although the photo on the left is from 1920, today’s Canal Park is nearly identical to how it appeared before its 84-year absence. The major changes here are the piers in the background. Most of them are gone and in their place is the green shoreline of Hudson River Park, which stretches from The Battery to 59th Street. Hoboken Street on the far left was absorbed into Canal Street as its eastbound lanes. Canal Park receives a sizable chunk of its funding and support for programs from the Canal Park Conservancy, a group comprised of local businesses and residents.
Canal Park Inn
The success of the park reflects on local businesses that have adopted its name. At 505 Canal Street is the Canal Park Playhouse, a neo-vaudeville performance space housed in an 1826 Federal style brick structure. At 508 Canal Street, the Canal Park Inn offers country-style lodging in the big city. Both of these businesses were founded by Kipp Osborne who purchased the historic properties in 1980. Triple glazed windows ensure that traffic noise from Canal Street does not disturb the inner serenity of this urban bed and breakfast.
Not all traces of the namesake canal are gone. In plans for the park’s restoration, the sewer that once emptied Collect Pond had a flood gate installed so that when the Hudson River rises in a storm surge, its water would not flow inland through the sewer.
Five blocks inland from Canal Park is another triangular green space, one that has a much shorter history but a more visible reminder of the street’s past as a canal. Capsouto Park opened in 2008 as part of the $300 million post 9/11 program that refurbished existing parks and created new green spaces throughout lower Manhattan.
The park is filled with historical plaques and public artwork that hint to the canal buried beneath. Located at the junction of Canal, Varick and Laight streets, this former parking lot was initially called CaVaLa Park, a pun on TriBeCa (triangle Below Canal). The name stood for the three streets ringing the park, Canal, Varick and Laight.
Seeking to inject history in the place of humor and tired of acronym toponyms inspired by gentrification local civic organizations and Community Board Two proposed renaming the park after local restaurateur Albert Capsouto. Born in Egypt, Capsouto fled to France in 1956 amid anti-Semitic violence in that country. His family immigrated to New York in 1961. Capsouto attended nearby Stuyvesant High School and founded Capsouto Frères, a French bistro on Washington Street with his older brothers Jacques and Samuel. A booster for the neighborhood, Capsouto was a founder of Tribeca Organization and a member of Community Board One. He died of a brain tumor in January 2009 at age 53. In October 2010, CaVaLa Park became Capsouto Park.
Canal Sculpture in the Park
The star attraction inside Capsouto Park puts the canal back into Canal Street with a sculpture by Soho-based artist Elyn Zimmerman. It is a 114-foot long sculptural fountain that originates in a waterfall that passes through locks and spills along a straight path framing the park’s northern border. The location of this “spillway” separates the park’s lawn from the traffic of Canal Street, replacing honking horns with the sound of rushing water. All of the above photos for Capsouto Park are courtesy of Forgotten-NY.
On a street that once had a canal that once ran through a meadow, there is now a water feature that ensures that one hidden waterway is visible again for this generation of New Yorkers.
In the News:
Staten Island Advance reports on the history and conditions of Long Pond Preserve on the island’s southwest corner.
NY Daily News reports on Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plans to restore the bathhouse at Orchard Beach.
Gothamist looks into the controversies, history, and approval process for the city’s public artworks.