Spotlight: New York’s Town Green


Today’s City Hall Park sits on the oldest part of the New Amsterdam and New York Commons — a public site in the planning tradition of the northern European town green. The Commons dates from the 1600s, and its checkered past has included workhouses for the poor, a burial ground for the colonial town’s African slaves, and many public executions — as well as the civic and religious buildings and military parade grounds that have historically been located at town centers.

Here are some photos I recently took in City Hall Park:

I think it’s interesting that, after almost four centuries, this park continues to function as a living gathering place in the city’s center. I recently ate lunch in the park. I listened to a man play the saxophone, beside the fountain; I noticed others spending their lunch hours there, reading the paper, tapping at a cell phone, or having a smoke. Tourists passed through and took pictures; poor people asked strangers for money; a man napped on the grass in the shade.

What draws everyone in, day after day? Is it the patch of nature? Views of the surrounding architecture? The buzz of human activity? The respite from car exhaust and street noise? How many of them realize that they’re not just passing through one of the city’s hundreds of small parks, but taking part in a 400-year-old tradition? That they are standing in what was once the only town green of a strange and distant colonial outpost of Western Europe?

Meanwhile, the city’s largest cluster of courthouses and public office buildings sits around Foley Square, a few blocks north along Centre Street. (Note that the English spelling is still used.) This is roughly where the northern end of the Commons once was, and its intensity of public uses represents the centuries-long persistence of the tradition of siting your community’s civic buildings near the town green:

Here’s a map of the Commons from about 1754:

NY Commons

And an overlay with today’s landmarks:


And some thoughts: