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NYC will not rename Foley Square

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

An attempt to rename Foley Square, a part of lower Manhattan long associated with Tammany Hall leader and saloon owner "Big Tom" Foley, is unlikely to succeed, according to the New York City Parks Department.

"We will not be renaming Foley Square," said a Parks Department official. "In fact, we will be preparing an historical sign for the area, explaining who Foley was." She added that the department generally does not involve itself in renaming areas where names have already been designated.

Since early last year, guardians of another famous Tom, Thomas Paine, have proposed incorporating Foley Square into the adjacent Thomas Paine Park.

The square, home of the U.S. Courthouse, lies at the intersection of Thomas, Pearl, Duane and Center Streets, and is named for "Big Tom" Foley, a Tammany Hall district leader and saloon owner from the turn of the century, who lived between 1852 and 1925. Recent immigrants may know the area as home to the Federal building that houses the INS. Foley himself used his Tammany Hall political connections to help win the governorship of New York for fellow Irishman Al Smith, and later backed Smith’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency.

The other Tom, having penned the writings that helped inspire George Washington and others to fight for American independence, spent his last years in Greenwich Village and died in 1809, at age 72 on Grove Street. Thomas Paine Society members hold that he is the more important historical figure. The society’s director, Brian McCartin, said, "Paine did a lot more for Foley and the Irish with his connection to the 1798 Rebellion and his major influence on world revolutionary movements."

With this in mind, the society still intends to petition the Civic Center Committee of Community Board One with its plan in February, but committee member Victor J. Papa, himself an Italian American, has attacked the renaming as tantamount to "ethnic erasure."

"Foley was a local hero in an era when Manhattan received starving Irish immigrants almost daily," he said. "His kind of politics got neighborhoods fed."

Papa has written a letter of complaint to the Civic Center Committee, urging fellow members not to vote in favor of proposing the renaming to the Parks Department. McCartin asserted that the plan was "not to get rid of Foley, but to gain recognition for Paine," but with the Parks Department policy of avoiding renaming issues, the two Toms are likely to continue sharing the area.

One contemporary politician has come out in favor of the renaming: city council member Kathryn Freed proposed relegating Foley’s name to the lower end of the square, including the "traffic island with the (J,M,Z) subway entrance."

But an Irish American historian, Hunter College professor Ed O’Donnell, questioned any change in the status quo and asked, "Why on earth can’t they have the two coexist?"

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