Rapkin-Gayle Plaza. Photo: NYC Parks / Daniel Avila

Today, NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue and NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala today cut the ribbon on two newly constructed plazas in Lower Manhattan. Beginning at the new Rapkin-Gayle Plaza, they were joined by Borough President Mark Levine, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, Council Member Christopher Marte, Community Board 2 Chair Jeannine Kiely, David Rapkin, son of Chester Rapkin, and members of the community. Following the first ribbon cutting, they were joined by 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 and community members to cut a second ribbon on Manuel Plaza. The new plazas add much-needed open space to the area while retaining access for DEP operations. 

“As the weather heats up, our public spaces become only more important to keeping New Yorkers cool and able to enjoy the outdoors,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams. “Manuel Plaza and Rapkin-Gayle Plaza are perfect examples of investments in our public realm that make our city more beautiful, more enjoyable, and more resilient for years to come.”  

“Open space is essential infrastructure for New Yorkers, and we are thrilled to partner with DEP in opening these two new plazas for surrounding communities to enjoy,” said Parks Commissioner Donoghue. “With new seating, greenery and turf areas, Rapkin-Gayle Plaza and Manuel Plaza are wonderful gathering places where people can relax and connect in these bustling neighborhoods.” 

“These plazas are an example of what can be achieved when City Agencies work closely together and how infrastructure can serve double duty. These sites not only support DEP’s operations, but they also meet New Yorkers’ social and cultural needs to gather, rest, and reconnect,” said DEP Commissioner Aggarwala

Rapkin-Gayle Plaza in SoHo and Manuel Plaza in NoHo are DEP-owned sites that have been transformed into new public spaces. Formerly gravel lots, they will now serve as greenspaces that feature new permeable pavers, seating, trees, native plants, drinking fountains, and synthetic turf areas for passive recreation. The sites will be managed by Parks while continuing to serve as key components of DEP operations.  

Rapkin-Gayle Plaza, located at the intersection of Grand and Lafayette Streets, is named in honor of two important figures in SoHo history: Chester Rapkin and Margot Gayle. Rapkin authored an economic study of the neighborhood that was instrumental to preservation activists, and Gayle led efforts to designate the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District. The $2.35 million Rapkin-Gayle Plaza project received Mayoral funding from DEP ($1 million), as well as City Council ($1.28 million) and Borough President ($70,000) funding.  

Manuel Plaza, on East 4th Street between Bowery and Lafayette Street, is named in acknowledgment of the first North American free Black settlement, known as 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. The $1.58 million Manuel Plaza project received Mayoral funding from DEP ($1.31 million), as well as City Council ($200,000) and Borough President ($71,000) funding. 

“These new plazas raise the bar for what public space can be in New York City, with a beautiful and creative design, native plants that are both beautiful and ecologically sensitive, and a resilient infrastructure that will protect us from major flood events,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark D. Levine. “I’m grateful to the DEP and the Parks Department for the collaboration that made these projects possible.” 

State Senator Brad Hoylman said, “Public parks are some of our city’s most precious resources. I am delighted we are creating more green space with the state-of-the-art Manuel Plaza in NoHo, named in honor of the five black men named Manuel who negotiated for their freedom in the mid-17th century. The plaza is a beautiful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, and I look forward to bringing my daughters to play on the brand new turf area and greenery. I thank Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue and DEP Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala for prioritizing making our city greener while honoring those who fought for justice.” 

“I’m delighted to join the community in celebrating two new public parks in Lower Manhattan. In this dense part of the city, open public space for rest and recreation is essential, and I thank the Parks Department and community members who worked to create these spaces that not only provide respite, but also honor the histories of notable New Yorkers, Chester Rapkin, Margot Gayle, and the Manuel family,” said Assemblymember Deborah J. Glick.  

Council Member Marte said, “it’s not every day you get to see a new open space, especially in SoHo, but I am excited to join my neighbors and the Parks Department for this ribbon cutting today. This historic day is made even more significant to the SoHo community because of the two giants this plaza will be named after: Chester Rapkin and Margot Gayle. Chester Rapkin is already called the “Father of SoHo”, but this renaming will officially signify his immortal impact on this neighborhood. 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. 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. To get to play a small part in acknowledging all that we owe these two legends is an immense honor, and I look forward to seeing my constituents enjoy the beautiful Rapkin Gayle Plaza.” 

“Opening this brand new public plaza at Manuel Plaza is an honor and a real joy. Open space is so precious to New Yorkers, this is one of the many examples of creatively rethinking our city owned land to improve quality of life,” said Council Member Carlina Rivera. “This plaza is particularly special because it was announced when I first started in elected office. I have had the pleasure of following the progress from the very first community meetings all the way through to seeing it open and enjoyed by so many New Yorkers. I want to thank area residents for their vital input, and Commissioners Donoghue and Aggarawala for their multi-agency effort to ensure a vital piece of city infrastructure, like the existing DEP Shaft Site, could be transformed into a public plaza for all to enjoy.” 

“21 and 18! CB2 is grateful for the opening of Manuel Plaza and Rapkin-Galyle Plaza on two water tunnel sites first acquired by NYC in 21 and 18 years ago,” said Jeannine Kiely, Chair, Manhattan Community Board 2. “Thank you to the hundreds of local residents, seven city council members, four borough presidents and mayors and countless Parks and DEP officials whose tenacity and vision led to today’s ribbon cutting.” 

“I grew up in Manhattan in the 1950s, and at that time, my father, Chester Rapkin, was a graduate student in City Planning at Columbia. By the 1960’s, my father, then a New York City Planning Commissioner, was approached by representatives of artists living in the areA not yet zoned for public use,” said David Rapkin, son of Chester Rapkin . “Dad worked to create a zoning variance, allowing jury-vetted artists to be classified as industry in the district, opening the door to the creation of SoHo as we now know it. Today, we celebrate the official opening of Rapkin-Gayla Plaza in the spirit of SoHo, a welcoming open space in lower Manhattan where folks can just sit and relax. To Mayor Eric Adams, Borough President Mark Levine, Council Member for lower Manhattan, Christopher Martay, the Parks Department, and the Department of Environmental Protection, I want to express my deep gratitude from Commissioner Rapkin and my personal appreciation for memorializing my father with the naming of Rapkin-Gayle Plaza.” 

“We are delighted to hear of the creation of Rapkin-Gayle Plaza in SoHo, which brings much-needed park space to SoHo,” said Carol Gayle and Gretchen Gayle Ellsworth, daughters of Margot Gayle. “It is gratifying that the new park has been named after our mother, Margot Gayle, a historic preservationist who championed cast-iron architecture, in tandem with Chester Rapkin, a visionary city planner. Each sought an alternative to a massive urban renewal project for the rundown area south of Houston. Rapkin, created a plan that recognized the value of the existing light industry in the district and urged changing the zoning to allow artists to live and work legally in lofts. Gayle surveyed, documented, and publicized the many cast-iron structures in the district. Most were dilapidated but still fine examples of this uniquely American form of commercial architecture, worth preserving and adapting to modern purposes. Zoning regulations were changed in 1970 and The Landmark Preservation Commission designated SoHo a historic district in1973. SoHo was born. We congratulate all the SoHo activists who have helped create Rapkin-Gayle Plaza, with special thanks to Councilman Christopher Marte, Sean Sweeney and the SoHo Alliance, and the New York City Department of Parks.” 

“The public square is an uneven landscape that often obscures information that could make our city’s history more inclusive. Black Gotham Experience is honored to have contributed to the naming of this plaza to highlight the impact of the African Diaspora in the making of New York. Manuel Plaza offers a place of reflection that bears the name of Africans who negotiated their freedom to create an ethnic enclave decades before 1664 when New York City was created. These stories can spark new thought patterns in future generations of New Yorkers,” said Kamau Ware, Founder Black Gotham Experience.  

“Water infrastructure has a long tradition of also providing recreational and other open space services, from the publicly accessible areas of the Catskill-Delaware Watershed to the Reservoir and Great Lawn in Central Park to the Bluebelts in Staten Island,” said Carter Strickland, VP Mid-Atlantic Region and New York State Director for Trust for Public Land.  “These beautiful pocket parks are the latest example of the interaction between these two systems that are so important for our livable, resilient city, and are providing much needed access to open space in lower Manhattan.” 

A third DEP site at 10th Avenue and West 48th Street will be named in honor of playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry. The project is currently in design.

Manuel Plaza. Photo: NYC Parks / Daniel Avila

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