This playground is named for its location on East First Street and First Avenue. It first opened in 1935, and was a typical product of the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) initiative to create recreational areas in the City. Following a period of neglect, this park was reclaimed by a series of neighborhood organizations working with City officials to once again provide a welcome respite from the surrounding traffic.
From 1865 to 1895, as the population of the city doubled and children increasingly teemed on the streets, leading reformers lobbied for the creation of a new kind of small park for children –the playground. The earliest playgrounds in New York City, called "sand gardens," appeared in the 1880s on the grounds of settlement houses. Furnished with innovative play equipment such as seesaws, and staffed by trained recreation specialists, the playground was designed to be a "healthful influence upon morals and conduct."
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), President of the Playground Association of America, wrote: "If we would have our citizens contented and law-abiding, we must not sow the seeds of discontent in childhood by denying children their birthright of play." For these reformers, recreation was not an end in itself: it was directly linked to the preservation of social morality.
Groups such as the New York Society for Parks and Playgrounds formed to raise awareness of the importance of play for children's health. The Society organized parades of mothers and babies, planned public meetings to demonstrate the use of the seesaw, and opened its own playground on Second Avenue and 91st Street. In 1903, the first municipally run playground in the United States, Seward Park, opened on the Lower East Side.
During the 1930s Depression era, federal aid through the W.P.A. enabled the City to greatly expand and improve its play spaces. Under the strict stewardship of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981), new playgrounds were constructed at an astonishing rate throughout the decade. Moses was able to employ 80,000 Parks employees, thanks primarily to the influx of money the federal government provided to stem unemployment through large public works projects.
When Moses took his post in 1934, there were only 119 playgrounds in New York City. By the end of the Moses reign in 1960, there were 777. Typically, these playgrounds consisted of large asphalt-covered areas adorned with sandboxes, seesaws, metallic jungle gyms, monkey bars, swing sets, and slides. They were designed for the use of a wide age group, from small children to those of early adolescence.
Bounded by East Houston and East First Streets and First and Second Avenues, this land was acquired by the City of New York in 1929 for transportation purposes, and was assigned to Parks by the Board of Transportation in 1935. In the mid-1990s, after years of neglect and disrepair, community members created the ‘First Park Children’s Playground Committee’ to clean, plant and paint the park anew and also to enlist support for a renovation of the park.
In 1997 Council Member Kathryn E. Freed funded an $843,000 renovation which featured a complete reconstruction of the recreational facilities, and the park was formally reopened on June 26 1997, after receiving its current name from Commissioner Stern. The playground now contains benches, play equipment with safety surfacing, a drinking fountain, swings, a spray shower with fish ornamentation, a flagpole with a yardarm, and a kiosk selling snacks with a separate seating area. London planetrees (Platanus x acerifolia) and honey locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos) line the perimeter of the park.