Happy Warrior Playground
W. 97 St. and Amsterdam Ave.
Directions via Google Maps
Happy Warrior Playground
Located at West 98th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, this playground and the adjoining school honor four-term New York Governor Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944). The son of Irish immigrants, Smith dropped out of school to help support his family. His lack of formal education, however, did not hinder Smith from becoming a distinguished New York political leader. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) nicknamed him “The Happy Warrior,” referring to William Wordsworth’s poem Character of the Happy Warrior (1807), which celebrates diligence and perseverance.
In 1903, Smith began his political career as a Democratic member of the State Assembly. With then-New York State Senator (later, United States Senator) Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953), Smith investigated labor conditions and fought for laws to raise safety standards and limit work hours. All told, he served 12 years in the Assembly from 1903 to 1915, becoming that body’s Democratic leader in 1911 and Speaker in 1913. In 1917, he became the President of the New York City Board of Aldermen, a precursor to the City Council. One year later, Smith became the first Irish Catholic Governor of New York, a position he held for four terms of two years (1919-1921, 1923-1929). As governor, Smith sponsored legislation for rent control, tenant protection, low-cost housing, and equal pay for female workers. He also appointed legendary Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981), Chairman of the New York State Council on Parks in 1924, and Secretary of State in 1927.
In 1928, Smith became the first Irish Catholic to be nominated for president. He ran as a Democrat, but lost the election to Republican Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). Soon after his defeat, Smith returned to New York City and became an active figure in municipal development. He served as the president of the Empire State Building Corporation, undertook many charitable projects, gave lectures, and was active in the Catholic Church in New York City. Smith died at his home on Fifth Avenue in 1944.
In 1952, the City of New York acquired this site for school and recreation purposes from Manhattantown, Inc., a housing development company. Four years later, the Board of Estimate assigned the land to the Board of Education. In 1965, the playground opened as P.S. 163, the Alfred E. Smith School, Playground. Commissioner Stern designated it as Happy Warrior Playground in 1994 in homage to Smith’s nickname.
Happy Warrior Playground, however, honors more than one person; it is a park that pays tribute to several individuals. The basketball area of the park honors the memory of Earl “The Goat” Manigault (1944-1998), a gifted basketball player and well-known community leader. The Goat played basketball throughout the city during the 1960s and 1970s, with such future NBA greats as Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Manigault’s signature move was the “double dunk” where he dunked the ball, caught it in mid-air, and dunked it again. Although drug use kept The Goat from college and professional stardom, he eventually overcame his addiction. He became involved in neighborhood recreation, counseling, coaching, and organizing a basketball tournament that has taken place every year since 1971. Soon after his death, friends and family worked with Commissioner Stern to dedicate the basketball courts in the playground to Manigault, naming them “The Goat Courts.”
Some people call the playground as “Rock Steady Park,” for the well-known 1980s break-dancing group, Rock Steady Crew, who once frequented the park. At one time, the dance group numbered over 500 members throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Rock Steady Crew practiced their footwork and routines in Happy Warrior Playground, among other parks. Malcolm McLaren’s 1983 video, “Buffalo Gals,” featured Rock Steady Crew, as well as several local dancers, break-dancing in this playground.
In 2001, Happy Warrior Playground underwent an extensive $1.2 million renovation, funded by City Council Member Phillip Reed. Designed by Rachel Kramer, the rehabilitation project involved the installation of new modular play equipment, animal art, a spray shower, and new basketball courts. Today, Happy Warrior Playground is more than a welcome place of rest and relaxation for people of all ages; it is a tribute to those who gave something back to the city they called home.