This playground is named after the nearby public school, designated P.S. 1. The school is named for Alfred Emanuel Smith (1873-1944), who grew-up on nearby Oliver Street and rose to be the governor of New York State. The housing complex east of Madison Street also bears Smith's name. Smith carried the spirit of his Lower East Side youth into all of his political work, using his skills to tirelessly campaign for wide-reaching, progressive social reform. Many of his ideas laid the groundwork for the plans outlined in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882-1945) Depression era New Deal.
Son of Irish immigrants, Al Smith dropped out of St. James Parochial School to help support his family after his father's death, spending seven years working at the Fulton Fish Market. In 1903 he was elected to the New York State Assembly and obtained the position of Majority Leader in 1911. In his free time away from Albany, Smith also aided downtown Democratic bosses and played parts with the St. James’s Players, a classical music ensemble. By the end of his tenure (1903-1915) Smith had garnered the prestigious position of Speaker of the House, becoming one of the most powerful representatives in Albany.
Smith campaigned to improve urban living and working conditions by drafting health and safety laws. While serving on the Assembly, Smith co-chaired the Factory Investigating Commission with State Senator Robert F. Wagner (1877-1953). Stringent changes were in order, a need confirmed after 141 women perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire near Washington Square. In 1917, Smith was elected President of the Board of Aldermen (predecessor of the City Council), and, in 1918, was elected the state’s first Irish Catholic governor. Smith served as governor for four two-year terms. He sponsored legislation for rent control, tenant protection, and low-cost housing. One such housing development built near Smith’s birthplace, 174 South Street, is named in his honor. The Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses were erected in the early 1950s to reduce overcrowding in the Lower East Side, by providing residents a place to live that was surrounded with open, green space.
In 1928, Smith made history as the first Irish Catholic nominated to run for United States president. He ran as the Democratic nominee but lost the election to Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) in a campaign severely damaged by anti-Catholic prejudice. In 1929, Al Smith wrote his autobiography Up to Now. He died in 1944.
The property for this playground was acquired by the City of New York on July 25, 1946 on behalf of the New York City Housing Authority and was promptly designated for use as a play area for the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses. The site was conveyed to Parks on June 12, 1952. In 1996, Playground One underwent renovations with $82,700 in funds allocated by Council Member Kathryn Freed.