This week I worked on the Praeger Department of Parks survey and photographs, and it has definitely found its way onto my list of favorite collections. In 1934, Mayor LaGuardia created a new city-wide Department of Parks, bringing the boroughs’ independent parks departments together under one agency directed by Robert Moses. One of the first tasks of the new Department of Parks was a survey of every park, playground, and gore in New York City, to assess the construction and development needs of the different spaces. For this survey, Emil Praeger, the chief engineer for the department, created architectural drawings, descriptions, and photographs for every park that the city owned.
Thanks to Praeger’s thorough work, the collection has hundreds of photographs of parks in all five NYC boroughs. But these images may not be what you expect when you think of parks, and perhaps that’s why they caught my attention. Some playgrounds are little more than empty plots of land, such as “Unnamed Playground 10” below. Today it’s the Crispus Attucks Playground in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Like the unnamed playgrounds, many of the parks surveyed are simple spaces awaiting a better future. Praeger’s survey and funding from the Works Progress Administration helped to implement the improvements and features that made these areas into the parks we know today.
Many of the images show empty parks and playgrounds, I suspect because of the time of day or season in which the photographs were taken. After going through dozens of photographs of deserted benches and lonely swing-sets, I could really feel the silence in these places.
And yet, there’s also something special about finding a quiet, empty spot in the middle of the city. Mr. Praeger may have had his fill of that solitude come 1935.
If you’re looking for more photos of your favorite park’s humble beginnings, Praeger’s Brooklyn parks photographs are available for browsing in the library’s image database.