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Governor Smith Playground

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

The greatest privilege that can come to
any man is to give himself to the nation which reared him.
””Alfred E. Smith

Four-time State Governor Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944) was a larger-than-life figure in New York State and City politics. Known for his trademark loud voice, big cigar, and brown derby, the “happy warrior’s” legacy includes the consolidation of 187 state agencies into 19 departments, and the creation of social programs similar to those later implemented nationwide in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal.

Born on the Lower East Side to an Irish immigrant family, Smith dropped out of school in the eighth grade in order to help his newly widowed mother support the family. For the next four years, Al Smith earned $12 a week at the Fulton Fish Market, moving, wrapping, and cleaning fish from four in the morning until five at night. His mother ran a candy and grocery store in the basement of their building, and their combined income was just enough to live on.

Smith found a friend and supporter in Tammany Hall boss Charles F. Murphy, and gained a Democratic seat in the State Assembly, where he served from 1904 until 1915. There, 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, the predecessor of the City Council. A vocal supporter of improvements to the Lower East Side, which he called “the old neighborhood,” he sponsored legislation for rent control, tenant protection, and low-cost housing.

In 1918, the boy from the old neighborhood became New York’s first Irish-Catholic governor. Defeated in his first run for re-election in 1920, he went on to serve three consecutive terms from 1922 to 1928, pushing progressive legislation through a Republican-dominated assembly. It was Al Smith who appointed master builder Robert Moses (1888-1991) to his first public office, that of the State Parks Commissioner. Moses, who went on to serve as New York City Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, changed the landscape of parks and public works in New York forever.

In 1928 Smith ran for President under the slogan “honest, able, fearless.” He lost to Herbert Hoover, a president often criticized for his lack of action as the country faced the Great Depression. Some speculate that Republican currents would have made it impossible for any Democrat to win that year, while others think that Smith’s Catholicism was the primary factor in his defeat. Al Smith ended his career as an elected politician only to become a central figure in municipal development. He accepted the presidency of the Empire State Building Corporation, and lent his support to the development of new housing and parkland near his birthplace, 174 South Street. The Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses were erected on the Lower East Side in the early 1950s.

In 1934, Smith’s lifelong love of animals led him to his final post in the public service. Robert Moses honored his political benefactor by naming him honorary night superintendent of the newly opened Central Park Zoo. Upon his death at age 71, Smith was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

This playground, adjacent to the Alfred E. Smith High School and Public School 1, is bounded by Morris and Courtlandt Avenues, and East 151st and 153rd Streets. Renovations of play equipment with safety surfacing were completed on May 13, 1999, with $11,895 in funding from Mayor Giuliani. The park features play equipment and a flagpole with a yardarm flying the colors of Parks, New York City and the United States.

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