Like all great parks, Columbus Park, on the southern edge of Chinatown, is many things to many people. For the bums who populate its benches in the northeast corner, it is a place to lay in the sun, drink tall boys of Budweiser in peace, and fall asleep undisturbed. For the elderly Chinese who come by the thousands every day, it is a community center and retirement home. Some play cards and checkers on stone tables as still more huddle around them like bees to a hive. On the south end of the park, far away in space and time from the pagoda-like pavilion where middle-aged Chinese men twist and flow to the rhythms of Tai Chi, young black boys fight it out at three basketball courts. A turf field divides the park in half and hosts soccer games for children from nearby public schools. Separating the field and the basketball courts is a playground where parents and grandparents from Chinatown amusingly watch the new generation swing and jump and slide, same as the American kids. This is only the park in Chinatown.
Different parts of the park stir different emotions. The parallel rows of benches which line the west side along Bayard Street are the refuge of the homesick, the lost, the wanderers. Chinatown is a poor replacement for their real homes. Creased and wrinkled old men and women sit here and listen to other old men play traditional folk music on instruments that look like a long-necked upside-down mallet. Played like a guitar-violin hybrid, the men strum a bow where three strings meet the head of the mallet. Those who sit here are not passive listeners; they sing off-key to songs which are high-pitched, heartbreaking, almost whining in tone. One day, a solitary man sitting alone on a bench clapped. He wore a hat which read “Brooklyn”.
Most men of Columbus Park wear cast-off hats or T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag or “New York” or messages they must not understand. One time a middle-aged, homely man wore a T-shirt that read: “Your Girlfriend is Flat”. The women fare better. They carry brightly-colored umbrellas on sunny days, shielding themselves or their friends playing Mahjong at the stone tables.
Columbus Park is what designers of urban parks should use as a model. It is a skid row in parts, social club, playground, hideout. Its four surrounding streets – Bayard on the north, Baxter (formerly Orange) on the west, Mulberry on the east, Worth (formerly Anthony) on the south – bear a turbulent history. The bloody Five Points neighborhood and “The Bend” once stood here. Next door, what is now Foley Square was two hundred years ago a swamp and tannery district. Once that pond was filled, in 1808, the surrounding area began to sink and a fierce odor soon possessed the air. The notorious, wretched, crime-plagued Five Points grew from this. This was the den of murderers and thieves and the slums of “The Bend” that Jacob Riis called a “vast human pig-sty.”
But the mix of immigrants and the poor of New York have never left Columbus Park. The German Jews arrived on Baxter Street in the 1840s, planting the city’s first garment district, and then the Irish arrived in numbers unseen outside Dublin, followed by Italians in the 1880s, their artifacts still seen farther north on Mulberry Street. Calvert Vaux planned Mulberry Bend Park, as it was first called, in the 1880s. It opened in 1897 and decades later Chinatown rose up around it. The hard-working Chinese have never relinquished it. They come here to rest their feet and enjoy what time they have between hours of toil.
Death is still a motif here. This stretch of Mulberry Street is Chinatown’s funeral row – Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corporation, Ng Fook Funeral Services, Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies, Sun Lun Hong Florist – and the men and women in black who habitually grace this street are solemn reminders for the regulars inside the park. Except they rarely seem to notice. The ancient men with empty gazes who sit alone on benches or large boulders in the northern section of the park lose themselves in tall clouds of cigarette smoke. Others congregate in large groups and never turn to see what happens on Mulberry Street. There are talkers and listeners and voyeurs. Something for everyone. There is life in Columbus Park, but there is also sadness. Lives here have not been easy, but in the afternoon the sun sets behind the wide stone pavilion and people fall asleep on benches, safe it seems, even comfortable.