A sliver of Manhattan bounded by Houston Street, First Street and First Avenue, Peretz Square marks the spot where the tangled jumble of lower Manhattan meets the regularity of the Commissioners’ Plan street grid.
With the implementation of the Manhattan grid plan proposed in 1811, a new order of north-south avenues and east-west streets was imposed upon New York City. First Avenue opened to traffic in 1813, and by the end of the year, stretched from North Street to 25th Street. (North Street, then the northern boundary of settled Manhattan, was later renamed for William Houstoun, a Georgia delegate to the Continental Congress; at the time of the renaming, the more famous Sam Houston was an unknown teenager). The new grid system did not align exactly with North Street, and with the opening of First Street from North Street to First Avenue in 1824, this small triangle was formed. This area, which had been the uppermost settled area of Manhattan, became known as the Lower East Side, as the burgeoning city expanded northward.
Many of the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1920 settled in the Lower East Side. By 1920 an estimated 400,000 Jews lived in this area. Most were native speakers of Yiddish, and many were devoted readers of the works of I.L. Peretz, the Polish playwright and poet. Peretz played a major role in the early development of both Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and was particularly beloved for his simultaneous appreciation of both traditional Judaism and socialist doctrine.
Isaac Loeb Peretz (1852-1915) was born in Zamosc, Poland to a religious family. As a young lawyer, he wrote primarily in Polish, and belonged to the Haskalah, or “enlightenment” movement, which called for a greater assimilation of Jews into the larger community. He published a number of works in Hebrew, including his first major poem, Li Omerim (‘They Tell Me’), but little in Yiddish, the vernacular language of Russian and Eastern European Jews. After a series of vicious pogroms in 1881, however, Peretz developed strong nationalistic leanings and an appreciation of the role that Yiddish could play in awakening a Jewish national identity. Accusations of radicalism in the late 1880s cost him his legal license, and from then on he made his primary livelihood through his writing.
Peretz’s first major work in Yiddish was his ironic poem Monish in 1888, published in Shalom Aleichem’s Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek. Moving to Warsaw in 1890, he became increasingly involved in the socialist movement, and was imprisoned for several months in 1899. During this period, Peretz edited several Yiddish journals, and also published a number of volumes in Hebrew, including a collection of love poems titled Ha-Ugav (‘The Harp’). He continued his socialist activity but, despite his hopes for a Jewish national awakening, did not join the Zionist movement (which was formally established in the late 19th century), believing that the future of the Jewish people lay rather in an enlightened Diaspora.
Later in his career, he grew cautious about the future of socialism, addressing a socialist meeting with the prescient remark “I hope for your victory, but I fear and dread it.” Together with Shalom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Seforim, Peretz pioneered a number of literary genres in Yiddish, including the short story and the symbolic drama. Upon his death in 1915, over 100,000 Polish Jews attended his funeral in Warsaw.
This site was acquired by the Parks Department on May 9, 1934, when the Board of Transportation issued a permit to Parks for temporary use and occupation. On November 23, 1952, Manhattan Borough President (later Mayor) Robert F. Wagner, Jr. dedicated Peretz Square, saying “[Peretz’s] writings gave hope and purpose to his people.” This park has been cared for since September 11, 2001 by the Friends of Peretz Square.