This park is named for its location near East First Street and First Avenue. First Park opened in 1935, and was a typical product of the WPA (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." 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 WPA 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. 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 First and Second Avenues, East Houston, and East First Street, this land was acquired by the City of New York in 1929 for transportation purposes and a street widening that leveled the buildings facing Houston Street. In 1935 it was assigned to NYC Parks by the Board of Transportation, along with an additional parcel of land at the western portion and a derelict tenement at 33 East First Street, with a directive that the “Park Department may wreck and remove” the remainder of the building and develop the property “as it sees fit.” The western play area at that time included handball and bocce courts among other features. In the mid-1990s, after years of neglect and disrepair, community members led by the First Street Block Association created the First Park Children’s Playground Committee to clean, plant, and paint the park, and also enlist support for park improvements.
The renovations featured a complete reconstruction of the recreational facilities and the site was named First Park by Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. The park reopened on June 26, 1997 with benches, play equipment, swings, a spray shower with fish ornamentation, a decorative floor medallion with signs of the zodiac, and a kiosk selling snacks with a separate seating area.
In 2008, community members formed First Street Green to transform the last undeveloped section of First Park (a strip along Houston and a derelict building lot at 33 East First Street) into an open art park. First Street Green, with assistance from NYC Parks, planted a new garden along Houston Street in the spring of 2011. Later that summer, a partnership with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a large-scale temporary mobile laboratory that explored innovative ideas for urban design and life, rehabilitated the rubble lot into a paved plaza that connected to the garden. The Lab’s sponsors invested more than $400,000 in private funds to upgrade the foundations, flooring and utilities at the site of the former tenement and plaza bridging First and Houston Streets. In 2016, the software company Intuit generously donated plantings, a new storage shed, and additional funding to support to the park.
First Street Green provides ongoing cultural activity in the park by engaging community and cultural groups, artists, designers, and architects to produce sculptures, murals, dance, theatrical and music performances, workshops, and temporary installations.