Petrosino Square

Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Park

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

This small park, named for heroic police officer Lt. Joseph Petrosino, is at a crossroads of several dynamic New York neighborhoods: Little Italy and the Bowery to the east, Chinatown to the south, and SoHo to the west and north. The site became parkland as a result of the City Charter of 1938, which turned over all public places and squares to the Department of Parks.

The area was formerly known as Kenmare Square, named for the street that runs east to Delancey. Around the turn of the century, Tammany Hall leader “Big Tim” Sullivan of the Lower East Side named Kenmare Street in honor of his mother’s birthplace, a village in County Kerry, Ireland.  Kenmare Square was renamed in memory of Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino (1860-1909) by local law in 1987.

Giuseppe (Joseph) Petrosino was born in Padula in the southern Italian province of Salerno, and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1873. As a boy, he shined shoes outside Police Headquarters on Mulberry Street. At the age of eighteen, he began his career in public service with the Department of Street Cleaning (later known as Sanitation; then under the jurisdiction of the Police Department). Fluent in many Italian dialects, Petrosino aided the police by working undercover as an informer in Little Italy. 

When he joined the Police Department in 1883, Petrosino was the city’s shortest officer, at five feet and three inches tall (though his stature was great.) Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt personally promoted him to Sergeant of Detectives in 1895. While investigating anarchists in the United States, Petrosino warned President McKinley of threats against his life; however, the warning was not heeded and the President was assassinated in 1901. 

Within ten years, Petrosino was named lieutenant and given command of the new Italian Squad, a unit created to combat the crime organization known as the Black Hand. Under his leadership, several thousand arrests were made, and more than 500 offenders were sent to prison.  Crimes against Italian-Americans dropped by fifty percent. He also founded the bomb and canine squads, the first units of their kind in the United States.

Petrosino was killed while on assignment to Palermo, Sicily, making him the only New York police officer to die in the line of duty outside the United States. When his body was returned to New York, thousands of mourners formed a funeral procession which marched from Little Italy to Calvary Cemetery in Queens. President Roosevelt was reported to have said: "Petrosino was a great man and a good man...he did not know the name of fear."

The park named in his honor is located just north of the Renaissance Revival edifice at 240 Centre Street, which served as Police Headquarters from 1910 to 1971. Since the 1980s it has been frequently host to temporary public art exhibitions. A city-funded capital renovation completed in 2009 expanded and improved the square. To the west, a lane of southbound roadbed was eliminated extending the park acreage and a new park entrance was inserted that opened up the central oval space. To the north the park was extended by filling what was formerly the street with a distinctive paving to accommodate pedestrians.  In 2014 two bronze commemorative markers by sculptor Carter Jones were set into the southern entrance piers, one with text within a decorative border, and the other distinguished by a relief portrait of Petrosino and the insignia of the New York City Police Department and emblem of Padula.

Directions to Petrosino Square

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