Where apartments and car-filled streets now stand in Sunnyside, there was once a grand stadium, Celtic Park, that produced some of the greatest Olympic champions.
With Saturday’s unveiling of Winged Fist Way, a street co-named for 43rd Street and 48th Avenue, City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and historian Ian McGowan hope the stadium and those athletes will never be forgotten.
“This is a recognition that is long, long overdue,” U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) said.
About 70 people turned out for the street renaming to honor the Irish-American Athletic Club, an athletic and cultural organization whose members won 50 Olympic medals from 1900 to 1924. The club often practiced in the athletic field called Celtic Park, which stood on 7 acres between what is now 42nd and 49th streets and 48th and 50th avenues. The symbol of the organization was a winged fist.
“Today is a celebration and an acknowledgement of our town and its wonderful history,” Van Bramer said.
Celtic Park was razed in 1930 to make room for an apartment complex of the same name, but in its heyday it was a popular gathering spot for Irish Americans, who would come to watch track-and-field stars, like five-time Olympic gold medalist Martin Sheridan.
McGowan said alcohol would be sold out of a “hotel” on the premises that had no rooms but could circumvent the blue laws banning the sale of beer at sporting events on Sundays.
“He would be the sponsor of Vitamin Water today,” Crowley said of Sheridan’s accomplishments.
The club was Irish American in name only. It produced Dr. John Baxter Taylor Jr., the first black Olympic gold medalist, and Polish-Jewish runner Abel Kiviat. Other members included Germans, Norwegians and Bohemains.
“This is a great story of western Queens no matter what your ethnicity,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who is Greek American and was one of the few speakers without Irish heritage at the event.
McGowan, who lives in the Celtic Park apartment complex and studies the Irish diaspora, created the Winged Fist Organization in 2008 to salute the club’s legacy after the Celtic Park co-op board refused to put up a plaque to honor the club.
The board declined to comment on its reasoning.
McGowan said he will be putting his ceremonial sign for the street in his window.
“I have not given up in my efforts to have a plaque up here,” McGowan said.
Crowley and Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley said they supported McGowan in his future efforts.
“We really could not understand why the building refused to honor our history,” Conley said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cn
©2012 Community News Group
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