Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944) was a great figure in New York State, New York City, and the Lower East Side. A son of Irish immigrants, Smith dropped out of St. James Parochial School to help support his family. However, his lack of formal education did not hinder Smith from becoming a renowned New York legislator and executive.
In 1904 Smith was elected to his first government office as a Democratic member of the State Assembly. While serving on the Assembly, Smith co-chaired the Factory Investigating Commission with State Senator Robert F. Wagner. Together they investigated labor conditions and passed laws to raise safety standards and limit work hours. In 1917 Smith was elected President of the Board of Aldermen. In 1918 he was elected the first Irish Catholic Governor of New York, a position he held for four two-year terms. A loyal supporter of improvements to the Lower East Side which he called “the old neighborhood”-Smith sponsored legislation for rent control, tenant protection, and low-cost housing. As Governor, he appointed Robert Moses as Chairman of the New York State Council on Parks in 1924, and as Secretary of State in 1927.
Smith made history in 1928 as the first Irish Catholic to be nominated for President. He ran as the Democratic nominee but lost the election to Herbert Hoover. Soon after his defeat, Smith and his family returned to New York City and moved into an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Smith became a central figure in municipal development. He supported the development of new housing and parkland that was eventually built near his birthplace, 174 South Street. The housing was to provide homes for the overpopulated Lower East Side, and to provide residents with open space and greenery on their doorstep. The Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses were erected in the early 1950s, and were named in memory of Smith, who had died in 1944.
Alfred E. Smith Park, located at the junction of Catherine Slip, Madison, and South Streets, was dedicated on June 1, 1950. The park features two memorials to Governor Smith, who was also known as “The Happy Warrior,” “The King of Oliver Street,” and “The First Citizen.” Charles Keck designed the nine-foot bronze figure of the Governor and the bas-relief of children at play. The relief represents “The Sidewalks of New York,” a song always played at Al Smith’s campaign rallies. Paul Manship created the flagpole base decorated with animals native to New York before colonial settlement. The park includes a large children’s playground and a plaza equipped with benches.
By 1963 the Lower East Side was suffering from a shortage of schools and recreational spaces. An agreement was reached between Parks and the Board of Education to relinquish a portion of the park for the new Public School 126. In exchange, the Board of Education would build a recreation center and cede the vocational school to Parks. The Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center was opened in 1967 with a new gymnasium and community rooms. The Human Resources Administration maintains the vocational school as a family shelter.
Today, the park is an oasis in a vibrant neighborhood. A capital reconstruction project, completed in 1997, brought new life to the playground. New modular play equipment, animal art, a spray shower, and a fire engine slide were installed in the playground, now the site of the City Parks Foundation’s “Summer Fun in the Playground” program. The park and recreation center have become what Smith hoped would be a “happier home for his neighbors.”
- Alfred E. Smith Playground
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