From Lower East Side oasis to “ugliest park in Manhattan”
Parks & Recreation acquired the land in 1931. In its early years, Gulick Park—then known as Downing Park—offered this changing neighborhood respite from the crowded streets of the pre-War Lower East Side. (See more images here.) Area residents could play ball games, stroll through and relax in the garden area and even ice-skate in the winter time. Over time, game tables were added to that green space, where games of dominoes, chess, or checkers could be played. There was also a restroom facility at the eastern end of the park.
During the civic and economic decline of the 1970s and 80s, trouble came to Gulick Park. Poor upkeep and policing, led to deterioration and unwanted behavior. The game tables dotting the southwestern garden area were removed in an effort to deter inappropriate goings-on in the park, leaving about a dozen unsightly concrete pavers. Meanwhile, the cobble stone paths in this area became overgrown with grass and weeds, turning very uneven. The restrooms had long been closed.
Asian Longhorn Beetles caused further decline. During the onslaught of the beetle infestation in the late 1990s, Gulick Park’s trees became infected. Parks & Recreation was forced to destroy more than half of the green space’s trees. The empty tree pits were haphazardly filled in with dirt and cobble stones.
In 1999, nearly $200,000 funded a reconstruction effort that installed new asphalt pavement, jungle gym sets, a water fixture for summer fun, and a roller-skating area—all in the eastern end of the park. The southwestern ‘green’ space was left untouched in this process. Similarly, the basketball courts continued to crack and become uneven, while the hoops gathered rust.
While this renovation was welcomed, it is now more than 10 years old and has always suffered for not integrating the eastern and western sections of the park. The handball courts are well used and some picnicking does occur in the playground area, but other aspects of the park have continued to deteriorate, hindering a more vibrant community use.
This was the state of Gulick Park and Playground, when The Friends of Gulick Park formed in the summer of 2009. The Friends were told early on by a Parks official, that it was considered “the ugliest park in Manhattan.”
According to the Parks Department, “when the city purchased the site, Parks Commissioner John E. Sheehy proposed to name the property in honor of Gulick. However, at a 1933 convention the Board of Aldermen moved to name it after Bernard Downing, the recently deceased minority leader of the New York State Senate. The park was known as Bernard Downing Playground from its opening in 1933 until 1985 when the playground was renamed to honor both (Luther Halsey [b. 1865] and his nephew Luther Halsey [b. 1892]) Gulicks’ civic contributions.”
You can read NY Times articles by and about Luther Gulick.
However, almost all long-time residents of the neighborhood—be they 30 or 70—know the park as Sheriff Park, after Sheriff street, which used to run through where the park now is and currently runs for the short block underneath the Williamsburg Bridge at the middle of the park.