My first internship was spent at the New York City Parks Department in the Historical Signs Division. It was the summer of 2001, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern came up with the brilliant idea of erecting 2001 signs to commemorate New York’s (approximately) 2001 parks, each sign affixing their names to the bottom.
This task required cheap labor, so a dozen college students set up shop in the Central Park Library, and the ensuing hijinks were manifest. But we were all smart and loved the work, and churned out historical signs like clockwork. We were each assigned a beat, and mine was the South Bronx.
Most of our days were spent doing historical research, but every two weeks we’d inspect our assigned parks; in my case, to make sure they weren’t dilapidated and fenced off from the public. I quickly noticed a trend of traffic triangles named for World War I soldiers. Here’s what happened:
As you probably know, the United States reluctantly entered the war in 1917, after stalemate had claimed the lives of millions of Europeans on the western front. New York City, particularly the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was one of the country’s central military hubs, and thousands of New Yorkers were sent off to fight. In late September, American and French forces led by General John J. Pershing launched the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a treacherous advance through the woods of Eastern France, dislodging German units that had been there since the start of the war. Of the 116,000 Americans who died in combat during World War I, about a quarter were killed during this three-month advance. Ultimately, however, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive broke the beleaguered German army, which sought an armistice that was signed at 11:11am on November 11, 1918. Today’s holiday was called “Armistice Day” until 1954.
Back in New York City, the NYPD spearheaded a War Memorial Fund, which raised several hundred thousand dollars, real money back then. Somehow the money went unspent, until it was discovered in 1934 by the one and only Robert Moses. Moses, wearing his New York City Parks Commissioner, needed money to build parks and playgrounds, which were almost nonexistent at the time. He tapped the War Memorial funds to build a number of parks in the Bronx, and in return, named them for fallen World War I soldiers of Bronx origin. As part of his city beautification efforts, Moses also staked out a variety of traffic triangle, tiny pieces of parkland too small for any other use. Many of these are named for soldiers in the South Bronx.
Examples of these parks include Vincent Ciccarone Playground, D’Auria-Murphy Triangle, Patrick Devanney Triangle, Cecil Hutton Triangle, Thomas O’Brien Triangle, George Ryan Triangle, Sergeant Johnson Triangle (the only NYC fireman to die in World War I), and later, Bicentennial Veterans Memorial Park. We know that Deviancy, Johnson, O’Brien and Ryan died during the Offensive, but should you pass those historical signs, you’ll find that tragically little is known about these mens’ lives. There is also a triangle named for Woodrow Wilson, the president who sent them into combat, and went mad trying to secure world peace in its aftermath.
In a city where so many of our streets and landmarks are named for the rich and powerful, these parks, small as they are, humbly remind us of the kids who crossed the Atlantic by boat to fight enemies unknown, through little choice of their own, and never returned home.