Ask people strolling through Rainey Park in Long Island City if they know who “Rainey” is, and there’s a 99 percent chance that they won’t. The New York City Parks Department is trying to change that by erecting signs at all of the city’s parks that explain the history that lies behind a name.
The Parks Historical Signs Program was first thought of by City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern back in 1989.
Stern claims he was inspired by John McNamara’s book “History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names” (1978).
It wasn’t until 1996, however, that the first historical park sign made its debut in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park.
Since 1996, the Park’s Art and Antiquities Department has prepared a few other signs, but mostly for special events such as ribbon cuttings and anniversaries.
But this summer, the Parks Department has made a firm commitment—by 2001, it intends to have a historical sign placed in all 1,500 city parks.
The history of Rainey Park is in many ways the history of modern Queens.
Doctor Thomas Rainey, of Ravenswood, spent a quarter of a century trying to build a bridge. Rainey died in 1910, but not before he saw his dream come true.
Bringing the Queensboro Bridge into existence wasn’t an easy accomplishment. It was originally thought up in the years following the Civil War, touted as a way to promote growth in Queens.
But at that time, the city’s bridge interest and funding was directed at the creation of what would be the Brooklyn Bridge, to link the thriving city of Brooklyn to Manhattan.
A local Queens group called the Committee of Forty kept the dream of the Queensboro Bridge alive through two decades. Rainey himself never wavered from his cause, spending years of time and most of his fortune trying to promote the idea of the bridge.
Then in 1898, New York City became consolidated into the five boroughs that exist today and interest in connecting Queens to Manhattan was renewed.
When the Queensboro Bridge was finally completed in 1909, it was a few blocks south of Rainey’s planned spot along what is now Vernon Boulevard. He was honored on the day of the bridge’s opening. He was given a medal that said “father of the bridge.”
“This is my bridge. At least it is the child of my thought,” Rainey said at the time. “I spent all I owned on the project…it is a grand bridge, much greater than the one I had in mind. It will be in service to thousands in the years to come, when Dr. Rainey and his bridge projects will long have been gathered into the archives of the past.”
Rainey died one year later. In 1912, the city acquired the property Rainey had initially intended for the bridge and, two years after his death, named it Rainey Park.
Kate Clark, the director of the historical signs program, and librarian at the Parks Department’s Library, said the Rainey Park sign has been completed and will be installed in the near future.
The sign points out the fact that since the Park was named in 1912, the area surrounding it has been highly industrialized. The park remains, says the sign, as an “oasis” of green.