This month, we look back on the history of one of the few — but treasured — open spaces serving our neighborhood. Just east of the SoHo Broadway district, at the junction of Kenmare, Lafayette and Spring Streets, lies a small triangular park named after Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino. Petrosino emigrated with his family from Italy as a child. As a young boy, he used to shine shoes outside the police headquarters on Mulberry Street. He ultimately joined the police force at the age of 18 and quickly rose up the ranks, eventually becoming the city’s first Italian-American Sergeant of Detectives and then leading a new unit created to combat Italian organized crime. Under his leadership, crimes against Italian-Americans dropped by fifty percent. He is also credited with the establishment of the bomb and canine squads, which were the first of their kinds in the United States. He eventually passed away while on assignment in Sicily, Italy, becoming the only New York police officer to die in the line of duty outside the United States. In 1987, this park, located just north of what previously used to be the police headquarters, was named to honor him.
Since 1984, the northern tip of the park served as a site for public art exhibition, showcasing works by Rudolph Serra, Lisa Hoke, Minsuk Cho, and many others. In 2009, a city-funded capital renovation expanded the square for pedestrian reclamation and public realm enhancement. On the western edge of the square along Lafayette Street and to the north of the park, roadbed was eliminated to increase the acreage of the park, along with the addition of a new entrance point to accommodate more pedestrians. In 2012, a Citibike station was controversially sited at the north end of the park where public sculpture had previously been exhibited.
While the sidewalks of the SoHo Broadway district make for lively environment to stroll, shop, and dine in, a common complaint from residents, businesses, and visitors alike has been long been the lack of greenery and public spaces to rest. Thankfully, a nearby space like Petrosino Square makes for a perfect intimate gathering spot — surrounded by a number of eateries from La Esquina to Jack’s Wife Freda. Furthermore, it sits at the confluence of a number of dynamic and historic neighborhoods — SoHo, Little Italy, Nolita, Chinatown, and the Bowery. An open space like Petrosino Square is also an amenity benefitting nearby small businesses and for property owners via attracting customers and increasing value.
Being surrounded by fast-moving vehicles can have a negative impact on the perception safety and quiet by square users in comparison to being surrounded by fellow pedestrians and bicyclists. Traffic-free public spaces are uniquely accessible and usable for pedestrians, while also being a boon to surrounding businesses. The Open Streets program has been in place on Lafayette Street adjacent to the square in the past two years, illustrating the success of such an approach in creating space for pedestrians as well as outdoor dining during the pandemic.
Petrosino Square has seen renewed focus by the City in the past month. The Points of Agreement affiliated with the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan passed by City Council in December includes dedicated funding to study“the potential redesign and expansion of Petrosino Square to expand the public space and create new opportunities for public art programming. The study will evaluate potential geometric changes to Lafayette, Cleveland, and Kenmare Streets; effects on safety and flow for pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles; emergency vehicle access; impacts on access to adjacent residential and commercial properties; and the potential modification or relocation existing furniture within the Square, including existing fencing, benches, and the bike share station; and other relevant considerations. . . Parks commits to advancing opportunities for activating the space at Petrosino Square by promoting the site through Parks’ rotating public art installation program.”
The Initiative looks forward to seeing the results of these efforts in regard to Petrosino Square by the City and what fruit they bear in terms of expanded and improved public space as well as a renewed commitment to public art. We treasure these public oases that exist in proximity to the district while we work to further explore and advance improvements to Broadway and adjacent streets such as those illustrated by the recently released SoHo Broadway Public Realm Vision + Framework Plan.
Top image credit: NYC Parks