Doin’ It in the Park: Rock Steady Park

NYC’s Happy Warrior Playground is located at West 98th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The basketball court, blacktop, and adjoining school honor four-term New York governor Alfred Emanuel Smith. Smith was given the nickname “Happy Warrior” by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who likened his diligence and perseverance to the substance of William Wordsworth’s poem, Character of the Happy Warrior.

The early seeds of Hip-Hop were planted at outdoor jams in New York City on the grounds of parks just like Happy Warrior. Upstart DJs of the era — like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash — would tap directly into the streetlights to power their booming sound systems.

In the ’60s, locals began referring to Happy Warrior Playground as the Goat Courts, where street baller Earl “the Goat” Manigault earned a reputation for using his 50-inch vertical leap to snatch quarters off the top of the backboard. Then came the ’80s and a new nickname, after the Rock Steady Crew adopted the park as home base to develop their own freakish physical abilities.


The Rock Steady Crew / Photo by Linda Vartoogian/Getty Images

Rock Steady’s use of Happy Warrior Playground was born out of both necessity and convenience. Since members like Crazy Legs, Jimmy D, Jo Jo, Ken Swift, Kippy Dee, Take One, Little Crazy Legs, and others had a tireless work ethic when it came to practice — and many members lived in close proximity — it became the de facto meeting place. When practice was over, it also became customary to hit downtown nightlife venues like the Roxy and Danceteria.

“We were the ghetto celebs of dance. People would walk by Rock Steady Park in the early ’80s and peek in and see us hanging out,” Crazy Legs recalls.

The park was flanked by a Carvel ice cream parlor, linoleum showroom, appliance store, and a 99 Cent place. There was also an alleyway divided by a gate that served as the dumping ground for all the businesses’ trash. Since most of the discarded cardboard boxes had housed appliances like refrigerators and washer and dryers, they were both huge and intact. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

While most people equate cardboard and breakdancing, the elements of early b-boy culture were forged on concrete. In the ’70s, the Bronx was literally burning, and no person — nor any business — was truly thriving. As a result, breaking was performed in the moment in an environment that was literally under one’s feet. However, Rock Steady saw how the cardboard could benefit their dancing skills on the black, beaded mats beneath the swing sets.

“Number one, we used cardboard because you couldn’t spin on these rubber mats,” Crazy Legs says. “And then number two, it was to keep our clothes from getting dirty. That’s how the whole cardboard thing happened."


The Rock Steady Crew / Photo by Linda Vartoogian/Getty Images

"We started that."

"We were only concerned with who was stealing moves. We didn’t even realize until much later that we started that.”

One of the biggest days in the park’s history occurred after the iconic 1981 battle between the Rock Steady Crew and the Dynamic Rockers at Lincoln Center. Hundreds of people — many of whom had no official connection to the dancers who won — gathered there to celebrate.

“People who didn’t even know us were there,” Crazy Legs recalls. “They were fans, which was crazy because we didn’t even know they existed."

"To me, there was no such thing as a Hip-Hop fan back then — unless it was just for rap music.”

Crazy Legs had been instrumental in securing the victory for the crew. However, he was notably absent from the park that day. After pushing his body to its physical limits at the Lincoln Center battle, he found himself dehydrated and sick.

“I ended up in the middle of the day — right after the battle — having to go to bed while the park was getting all packed up,” Crazy Legs says. “By the time I was out of bed at Ken Swift’s home, the party had finished, and I missed out on one of the biggest celebrations we could ever have.”

What was known at the time as Happy Warrior Playground/the Goat Courts was soon referred to as “Rock Steady Park” thanks to the crew’s reputation in the city. According to Crazy Legs, this unofficial nickname is well deserved.

“I think it’s proper,” he says. “Because we were a part of something that was presented to the world. As a result of what we were doing, that also gave life towards an industry. I mean, we were on the first Hip-Hop tours, the first documentaries, the first presentations of Hip-Hop downtown. Fuck, we may as well get something out of this!”

* Banner Image: The Rock Steady Crew / Photo by Linda Vartoogian/Getty Images

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