New public plazas open in Lower Manhattan

Behind a cyclone fence, the lot at the corner of Lafayette St. and Grand for years remained forlorn and barren. Sitting atop City water infrastructure, construction development is no option on these Department of Environmental Protection  (DEP)  sites. Likewise, a similar lot sits on E. 4th between Lafayette and Bowery.

Now, a much-improved change has come to these desolate spaces. DEP has partnered with NYC Parks to create public access open spaces for New Yorkers to take respite.

To be managed by Parks,  the sites continue to serve as key components of DEP operations allowing for maintenance trucks and machinery. But, the former gravel lots have been transformed into plazas of permeable pavers, seating, a smattering of plants, and a bit of synthetic turf. 

Shade tree plantings are really not an option. Admittedly, there is little shelter from the scorching sun, of which we have many days so far this summer—what’s missing is a sun shade canopy.  But otherwise, during the hours of day or seasons when the sun is not brutal, the plazas are a welcome addition to very-needed open space.  

On Friday, NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue and DEP Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala joined local pols and community members to celebrate the opening of Rapkin-Gayle Plaza and Manuel Plaza with the pomp of ribbon-cutting. 

Manuel Plaza on E. 4th St. created by partnership of DEP and Parks.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

About two decades ago NYC acquired the sites.  Community Board 2 Chair Jeannine Kiely informs us that over the years, the tenacity and vision of hundreds of local residents, council members, borough presidents and mayors as well as countless Parks and DEP officials led to this project. 

The Lafayette St. site is in the city council district of Council Member Chris Marte who on learning the plazas would have geographic generic designations opined for meaningful names. He thought it appropriate to honor New Yorkers who had an impact on the neighborhood.

The Lafayette site’s name now is Rapkin-Gayle Plaza, honoring two such people. 

As Planning Commissioner Chester Rapkin,  referred to as the Father of SoHo, worked to create a zoning variance, opening the door to the artists’ enclave of SoHo.  He also authored an economic study of the neighborhood in the 60s that was instrumental to preservation activists. Margot Gayle led efforts to designate the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District.  

 “This renaming will officially signify Chester Rapkin’s immortal impact on this neighborhood,” says Marte. 

‘When SoHo was threatened to be razed off the map, Chester made the case to preserve it, thereby defending 12,000 manufacturing jobs and affordable industrial spaces for businesses and artists.”

Acknowledging these two legends he continues, “Just a decade later, Margot Gayle stepped up to save SoHo from Robert Moses’s expressway plan. She turned her passion for cast-iron architecture into a plan to preserve them, which in turn stopped the displacement of thousands of working people.”

Ready to cut the ribbon at Manuel Plaza on E.4th St.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

David Rapkin, son of Chester joined BP Mark Levine, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, CB2 Chair Kiely and others for remarks and the ribbon cutting. 

Following the ceremony, a number of community members and VIPs migrated north to E. 4th, now designated as Manuel Plaza,  acknowledging the first North American free Black settlement, known the Land of the Blacks.  

The name honors Big Manuel, Clyn Manuel, Manuel Gerrit de Reus, Manuel Sanders and Manuel Trumpeter, who were among 28 people of African descent who negotiated their freedom from the West India Dutch Company and over 100 acres in land grants in the mid-17th Century in New Netherland. 

With others from the earlier ceremony, community members,  State Senator Brad Hoylman, Council Member Carlina Rivera, Kei Williams and Isa Reyes from the Black Gotham Experience, Emily Hillwright Director of Operations at the Merchant’s House Museum, which is next door, cut the ribbon at Manuel Plaza.

Funding for the plazas comes from DEP, City Council, and the Borough President.  There are four such sites in New York City.  A third DEP site at 10th Ave. and W. 48th St. is in design and will be named in honor of playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry.