overview

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

Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and Katharine Hepburn Garden, in Manhattan, inadvertently honor LGBT individuals.

Header Photo
Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 2018. Photo by Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

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 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and Katharine Hepburn Garden, in Manhattan.

This park, on the south side of East 47th Street between First and Second Avenues to the north of the United Nations building, was acquired by the City in 1948 and named Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in 1961. It has been a site for public demonstrations for many years, including the fourth-ever U.S. gay rights protest, on April 18, 1965. It was also the location of a temporary installation of sculptures by Keith Haring in 1986.

The plaza honors Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), Sweden’s representative to the United Nations General Assembly (1951-53), who was unexpectedly asked to serve as Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953. He was reelected unanimously for a second term in 1957. During his tenure, Hammarskjöld was a crucial force in promoting peace throughout the world, in line with the United Nations charter. He died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia in 1961 and was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

An extremely private man, Hammarskjöld was born into a powerful political family and raised in a strict Swedish Christian tradition. He never revealed details of his personal life, even in his private journals. His sexuality was questioned during his lifetime, and he was subjected to gossip from columnists and political enemies. Though there is no direct evidence, biographers have concluded that he was probably homosexual, and possibly asexual, living a life of sexual abstinence and self-sacrifice, in devotion to his elevated international role and profile. The first English language book to address this was Noble Lives: Biographical Portraits of Three Remarkable Gay Men – Glenway Wescott, Aaron Copland, and Dag Hammarskjold (2005) by Marc E. Vargo.

In 1997, when Hammarskjöld Plaza was reconstructed, the Katharine Hepburn Garden was planted and dedicated. Named for actress Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), who had moved to the Turtle Bay neighborhood in 1932, it honored her lifelong love of gardening and active participation with the Turtle Bay Association, starting in 1957 and lasting for several decades. She lived for over six decades two blocks away at 244 East 49th Street.

Hepburn appeared in 13 Broadway theater productions between 1928 and 1982, with her biggest success being Philadelphia Story (1939-40) at the Shubert Theater. Her leading role in The Warrior’s Husband (1932) brought her to the attention of Hollywood. She had an extraordinarily long film career, from 1932 to 1994, became a major star, and was the recipient of four Academy Awards for best actress. Hepburn was sometimes criticized as too mannish in her early work on stage, but she was also gender non-conforming in her personal style for her time, preferring to wear pants. She carefully crafted her public image to conceal her possible bisexuality, and probable lesbianism, while she had many close life-long friendships with unmarried women and lesbians. Her sexuality has been widely discussed by, among others, friend and columnist Liz Smith, James Robert Parish in Katharine Hepburn: The Untold Story (2005), William J. Mann in Kate: the Woman Who Was Hepburn (2007), and Scotty Bowers in Full Service (2012).

Sources

  1. “Dag Hammarskjold Plaza,” NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, on.nyc.gov/3ACsy8Z.

  2. James Robert Parish, Katharine Hepburn: The Untold Story (New York: Alyson Publications, 2005).

  3. Jerry Flack, book review of Noble Lives, RLD Books, bit.ly/3o0JhiI.

  4. “Katharine Hepburn Garden,” NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, on.nyc.gov/2XH5pnl.

  5. Marc E. Vargo, Noble Lives: Biographical Portraits of Three Remarkable Gay Men – Glenway Wescott, Aaron Copland, and Dag Hammarskjold (New York: Harrington Park, 2005).

  6. Tavo Amador, “Was Katharine Hepburn Bisexual?,” Bay Area Reporter, November 22, 2005.

Other Sites in the Neighborhood

450 East 52nd Street
Greta Garbo Residence at the Campanile
Residences
122 East 17th Street
Elisabeth Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe Residence
Residences
200 Park Avenue
Richard Lippold & “Flight” at the Pan Am (now Met Life) Building
Public Spaces