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Brooklyn’s East River State Park renamed in honor of late LGBTQ activist and trans icon Marsha P. Johnson

A Monumental New Yorker, Remembered

Brooklyn’s East River State Park renamed in honor of late LGBTQ activist and trans icon Marsha P. Johnson

Brooklyn’s Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which will receive numerous aesthetic and infrastructural upgrades over the next year, is the first state park in New York to be named after an LGBTQ person or a Black trans woman. (Courtesy NY State Parks/Flickr)

East River State Park, a seven-acre waterfront green space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been formally renamed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in tribute to Marsha P. Johnson, a trailblazing LGBTQ activist, drag performer, sex worker, model, and ubiquitous downtown Manhattan presence fondly remembered as “The Mayor of Christopher Street.” New Jersey-born Johnson, who passed away in 1992 at the age of 46, was a tireless crusader in the gay liberation movement and is perhaps best known for her role in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and as a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front. Johnson, who self-identified as a gay man and a drag artist during her lifetime but has contemporarily has been referred to as a transgender woman, was also an ACT UP activist and co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) along with Sylvia Rivera.

The renaming marks the first time that a park administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation (NYS OPRHP) has been dedicated to an LGBTQ individual or transgender woman of color. The dedication was made official on August 24, what would have been Johnson’s 75th birthday. In total, the NYS OPRHP operates over 250 parks, historic sites, and recreational trails across the state and eight units within city limits including Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn and Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx.

In addition to the renaming, Cuomo announced a slew of planned upgrades and improvements that mark the largest investment in the park first opened to the public in 2007. Most notably, the improvements will include new public art installations that celebrate Johnson’s contributions to queer life in New York City and to the equality movement in the Big Apple and far beyond. The first of these installations, a riotously hued and flower-stamped perimeter fence erected in two high-traffic locations, was unveiled in concert with the dedication. Per the Governor’s Office, the vivid design “reflects Marsha’s style and colors.” Interpretive signage has also been placed around the park detailing her life and activism.

illustration of a colorful state park in nyc
Although only a little over 10 years old, the former East River State Park has been due for upgrades—and a name change. (Courtesy NY State Parks/Flickr)

“Too often, the marginalized voices that have pushed progress forward in New York and across the country go unrecognized, making up just a fraction of our public memorials and monuments,” said Cuomo in a statement. “Marsha P. Johnson was one of the early leaders of the LGBTQ movement, and is only now getting the acknowledgment she deserves. Dedicating this state park for her, and installing public art telling her story, will ensure her memory and her work fighting for equality lives on.”

Earlier this summer, a petition to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus with a statue of Johnson in her native Elizabeth, New Jersey, garnered over 75,000 signatures. In 2019, plans were announced for a proper, permanent monument to both Johnson and Rivera in the heart of Greenwich Village.

a patch of grass lined by a colorful fence
New decorative elements at the riverside state park will evoke the colorful, singular style of Johnson. (Courtesy NY State Parks/Flickr)

Planned improvements and additions to the state park formerly known as the East River State Park (somewhat confusingly, there is a larger, city-operated park in Lower Manhattan with a similar familiar name) include additional public art and interpretive materials honoring Johnson as well as documenting LGBTQ history and life in New York City. These additions will be installed along two historic gantry foundation walls to form an alfresco gallery. The exterior walls of an existing storage building will also be decorated in the same colorful motif as the perimeter fence.

The largest addition will come in the form of a new 1,200 square foot restroom facility and educational hub complete with a classroom, park ranger station, and small storage area. Per the Governor’s Office, the building will be realized in “container-style” as a nod to the site’s industrial, barge-to-rail heritage. A multitude of infrastructural enhancements including new park furniture, an improved stormwater management system, and new concrete pads for hosting Smorgasburg and other large events are also in the works.

signage telling the story of marsha p johnson
Interpretive park signage shares the life story of Marsha P. Johnson. (Courtesy NY State Parks/Flickr)
aerial view of planned upgrades at a nyc park
Aerial view of planned upgrades and additions at Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy NY State Parks/Flickr)

“Open spaces are the jewels of any neighborhood and are used for recreation and leisure by people from every walk of life,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin in a statement. “To have one of our local parks named after someone as influential and important to the history of our city and the fight for equality everywhere is an honor. The new name and planned improvements to the park will show our commitment to providing world-class public spaces for everyone.”

All upgrades and Johnson-related public art installations are expected to be completed by the summer of 2021.

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