This park honors two generations of leaders in New York City’s Italian-American community ”“ John DeSalvio (1881-1948), and his son Louis (1910-2004). John DeSalvio was a first-generation American; his parents, Luigi DeSalvio and Maria Rosa Vozzo, were both born in Italy. John was raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he became interested in boxing at an early age after watching fights in local clubs. The majority of prizefighters at that time were Irish, so John adopted the name of his manager, Jimmy Kelly, when he began to compete. He became a local welterweight champion, but never achieved national success in the ring. Following the conclusion of his boxing career, John opened a saloon just down the street from 202 Hester Street, where he lived most of his adult life. In 1910, he married Stella Formachelli and their marriage produced his son Louis and two daughters, Lillian and Viola. As the owner of a successful business and a family man, John soon became an influential member of New York’s Little Italy community.
When John DeSalvio was elected district leader of the Second Assembly District (West), he became one of only a few Italian-American members of the notorious Tammany Hall political organization. Tammany Hall may have ended in a blaze of corruption and scandal, but it originally drew support by addressing the concerns of New York City immigrants. Notably progressive, Tammany Hall addressed employment, legal aid, and naturalization issues through elected or appointed neighborhood politicians such as district leaders and precinct captains. As a political boss, DeSalvio proved to be a great humanitarian and earned the affectionate nickname “Captain” in Little Italy. When he opened a second, more exclusive restaurant and club, “Jimmy Kelly’s Momart,” it attracted clientele such as New York State Governor Al Smith, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and entertainers Jimmy Durante and Eddy Cantor. John used a portion of his profits from the club to prepare Christmas baskets of canned goods and to pay bills for the neighborhood’s poorest residents. His weekly attendance at Yankees and Giants baseball games convinced Yankees’ slugger Joe DiMaggio to aid in the distribution of the Christmas baskets. DeSalvio died in the Bronx and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
Louis DeSalvio followed in father’s political footsteps, and was elected Second District New York State Assemblyman. In that capacity, he sponsored the creation of this playground on the corner of Spring and Mulberry Streets, in the heart of Little Italy. The neighborhood is bounded to the south by Canal Street, to the west by Broadway, to the north by Houston Street, and to the east by Mulberry Street. Northern Italians first settled in the area in small numbers during the 1850s. These early immigrants were predominantly Roman Catholics, and some of the first Italian cultural activities centered on the parish at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua founded in 1866. The parish’s current church stands at 153-157 Sullivan Street. The unification of Italy in 1870 caused widespread political changes that particularly affected Southern Italians, therefore the second wave of immigrants hailed primarily from Sicily or south of Rome. The small community had firmly established itself by 1880, when Carolo Barsotti founded the Italian-language daily newspaper Il Progresso. Though a small vestige of its teeming heyday, Little Italy is still known as an enclave of Italian culture and is best known for its shops, restaurants, and bakeries.
The City of New York acquired the property in 1954 by condemnation and assigned it to Parks that same year. In 1955, Louis DeSalvio saw the City Council enact a local law naming the property John DeSalvio Park, later shortened. When the playground opened on December 15, 1955, it was equipped with swings, slides, seesaws, play equipment a shower basin, game tables, and benches. DeSalvio Playground now features modular play equipment in the colors of the Italian flag (red, white, and green), a basketball half-court, benches and game tables. In 1997, the playground hosted the Citywide Bocce Ball Championships.