overview

Many New York City public parks and playgrounds are named in honor of prominent figures in New York City and American history.

Alice Austen Park, on Staten Island, inadvertently honors an LGBT individual.

Header Photo
Photo by Malcolm Pinckney, 2000. Courtesy of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

History

Many New York City public parks and playgrounds are named in honor of prominent figures in New York City and American history. The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project compiled a list of 13 public parks and playgrounds named after gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, several of which intentionally honor an LGBT individual. This list includes Alice Austen Park, on Staten Island.

This park was named in 1975 for Alice Austen, thus inadvertently honoring an LGBT individual. The park is the location of Austen’s family home “Clear Comfort,” now a museum. A pioneering female photographer, Austen (1866-1952) grew up here and she later shared the house after 1917 with schoolteacher Gertrude Tate, her partner of 53 years. Austen’s work of the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes early images that challenged gender roles, such as women embracing and dressed in male drag, which have since become iconic to the LGBT community.

Austen lost her money in the 1929 stock market crash, but was able to hold onto the house through the earnings Tate made teaching dance classes. They opened a summer tea room on the property, which closed in 1940, and they were evicted in 1945. The couple moved to a small apartment at 141 St. Mark’s Place in the nearby neighborhood of St. George. Tate looked after the ailing Austen until a fall left her unable to continue teaching dance lessons. Austen was then admitted to several nursing homes, eventually signing over her remaining money and possessions to Tate’s legal ownership. Tate moved in with family in Jackson Heights, Queens, but they would not let Austen join her. Despite the distance, Tate visited Austen every week, even after she was admitted to the hospital ward of Staten Island Farm Colony, a local poorhouse. The discovery of 3,500 of Austen’s plate glass negatives in 1950 earned her enough money to move to a private nursing home, where she died in 1952. The couple’s wish to be buried next to each other was not granted by their families; Austen was laid to rest in her family’s plot at Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island and Tate was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a group of historic preservationists that included photographer Berenice Abbott and architect Philip Johnson fought to save the house from demolition. The Alice Austen House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1971. The house and the surrounding park were acquired by the City in 1975.

In a 1994 demonstration, the Lesbian Avengers, an activist organization, marched around the grounds calling it a “National Historic Lesbian Landmark” and passed out pamphlets advocating that Austen and Tate’s same-sex relationship be acknowledged. This has come to fruition in recent years as the house museum staff and board has worked to incorporate the couple’s story by bringing in LGBT scholars and, beginning in 2016, participating in the LGBT Pride March. Today the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation website entry on this park honors Austen’s LGBT history.

Sources

  1. Alice Austen file, Lesbian Herstory Archives.

  2. “Alice Austen Park,” NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, on.nyc.gov/3AFMNCw.

  3. Ann Novotny, Alice’s World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen, 1866-1952 (Old Greenwich: The Chatham Press, 1976).

  4. C. Jane Gover, The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn of the Century America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).

  5. “Her Life,” Alice Austen House website, bit.ly/2nmLUsu.

  6. Lillian Faderman and Phyllis Irwin, “Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate: A Boston Marriage on Staten Island,” Historic House Trust New York City, 5 no. 4 (Fall 2010), p. 7.

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