Union Square is an important and historic intersection in New York City, located where Broadway and the former Bowery Road – now 4th Avenue – came together in the early 19th century; its name celebrates neither the Federal union of the United States nor labor unions but rather denotes the fact that “here was the union of the two principal thoroughfares of the island.” Today it is bounded by 14th Street to the south, Union Square West on the west side, 17th Street on the north, and on the east Union Square East, which links together Broadway andPark Avenue South to Fourth Avenue and the continuation of Broadway. Union Square Park is under the aegis of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Neighborhoods around the square are the Flatiron District to the north, Chelsea to the west, Greenwich Village to the south, and Gramercy to the east. Many buildings of The New School are near the square, as are several dormitories of New York University.
The eastern side of the square is dominated by the four Zeckendorf Towers, on the site of the bargain-priced department store, S. Klein, and the south side by the full-square block mixed-use One Union Square South (Davis Brody Bond, 1999). It features a kinetic wall sculpture and digital clock expelling bursts of steam, titled Metronome. Among the heterogeneous assortment of buildings along the west side is the Decker Building.
Union Square is noted for its impressive equestrian statue of George Washington, modeled by Henry Kirke Brown and unveiled in 1856, the first public sculpture erected in New York since the equestrian statue of George III in 1770 and the first American equestrian sculpture cast in bronze. Other statues in the park include the Marquis de Lafayette, modeled by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and dedicated at the Centennial, July 4, 1876, Abraham Lincoln, modeled by Henry Kirke Brown (1870), and the James Fountain (1881), a Temperance fountain with the figure of Charity who empties her jug of water, aided by a child; it was donated by Daniel Willis James and sculpted by Adolf Donndorf. A statue ofMahatma Gandhi in the southwest corner of the park was added in 1986.
At the time that John Randel was surveying the island in preparation for the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) angled away from the Bowery at an acute angle that would have been so awkward to build on, that the Commissioners decided to form a square at the union. In 1815, by act of the state legislature, this former potter’s field became a public commons for the city, at first named Union Place.
In 1832, when the space was surrounded by empty lots Samuel Ruggles, one of the founders of the Bank of Commerce and the developer ofGramercy Park to the northeast, convinced the corporation to name it Union Square and enlarge the commons to 17th Street on the north and extend the axis of University Place to form the square’s west side. Ruggles obtained a fifty-year lease on most of the surrounding lots from 15th to 19th Streets, where he built sidewalks and curbs. In 1834 he convinced the Board of Aldermen to enclose and grade the square, then sold most of his leases and in 1839 built a four-storey house facing the east side of the Square.
Boy selling newspapers in Union Square, July 1910
A fountain was built in the center of Union Square to receive water from the Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842. In 1845, as the square finally began to fill with affluent houses, $116,000 was spent in paving the surrounding streets and planting the square, in part owing to the continued encouragement of Ruggles. The sole survivors of this early phase, though they have been much adapted and rebuilt, are a series of three- and four-storey brick rowhouses, 862-866 Broadway, at the turn where Broadway exits the square at 17th Street. The Everett House on the corner of 17th Street and Fourth Avenue (built 1848, demolished 1908) was for decades one of the city’s most fashionable hotels.
In the early years of the park a fence surrounded the square’s central oval planted with radiating walks lined with trees. In 1872 Frederick Law Olmsted andCalvert Vaux were called in to replant the park, as an open glade with clumps of trees.
At first the square, the last public space that functioned as the entrance to New York City, was largely residential – the Union League Club first occupied a house loaned for the purpose by Henry G. Marquand at the corner of 17th Street and Broadway – but after the Civil War the neighborhood became largely commercial, and the square began to lose social cachet at the turn of the twentieth century. Tiffany & Co., which had moved to the square from Broadway and Broome Street in 1870, left its premises on 15th Street to move uptown to 37th Street in 1905; the silversmiths Gorham Company moved up from 19th Street in 1906. The last of the neighborhood’s free-standing private mansions, Peter Goelet’s at the northeast corner of 19th Street, made way for a commercial building in 1897.
The park has historically been the start or the end point for many political demonstrations. In April 1861, soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, it was the site of a patriotic rally of perhaps a quarter of a million people that is thought to have been the largest public gathering in North America up to that time. In the summer of 1864 the north side of the square was the site of a “Sanitary Fair”.
Union Square is, and was, a frequent gathering point for radicals of all stripes to make speeches or demonstrate. In 1865 the recently formed Irish republican Fenian Brotherhood came out publicly and rented Dr. John Moffat’s brownstone rowhouse at 32 East 17th Street, next to the Everett House hotel facing the north side of the square, for the capitol of the government-in-exile they declared. On September 5, 1882, in the firstLabor Day celebration, a crowd of at least 10,000 workers paraded up Broadway and filed past the reviewing stand at Union Square. Although the park was known for its union rallies and for the large 1861 gathering in support of Union troops, it was actually named for its location at the “union” of Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and Eastern Post Road (now extinct) decades before these gatherings. On March 28, 1908 an anarchist set off a bomb in Union Square which only killed himself and another man.
Union Square was named a National Historic Landmark in 1997, primarily to honor it as the site of the first Labor Day parade.
In the days and weeks following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Union Square became a primary public gathering point for mourners. People created spontaneous candle and photograph memorials in the park and vigils were held to honor the victims. This was a natural role for the Square as Lower Manhattan below 14th Street, which forms Union Square’s southern border, briefly became a “frozen zone,” with no non-emergency vehicles allowed and pedestrians sometimes stopped and asked why they were venturing south by police and national guardsmen. In fact, for the first few days following the attacks, only those who could prove residency below 14th Street could pass. The Square’s tradition as a meeting place in times of upheaval was also a factor.
In 1976, the Council on the Environment of New York City (now GrowNYC) established the Greenmarket program, which provided regional small farmers with opportunities to sell their fruits, vegetables and other products at open-air markets in the city. The best-known of these is the Union Square Greenmarket, held Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays between 8 AM and 6 PM year round. 250,000 customers a week purchase 1,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables at the market, and the variety of produce available is much broader than what is found in a conventional supermarket.
Union Square is also known for the Union Square Holiday Market, which is held November 23 through December 24. Temporary booths are filled with over 100 craftsmen, who sell items ranging from candles and perfume to knitted scarves and high-end jewelry.
Union Square is a popular meeting place, given its central location in Manhattan and its many subway lines. There are many bars and restaurants on the periphery of the square, and the surrounding streets have some of the city’s most renowned (and expensive) restaurants. S. Klein’s department store promoted itself in the middle 20th century as an “On the Square” alternative to higher prices uptown, and late in the century several big-box chain stores established a presence, including Barnes & Noble, Babies “R” Us and Staples. In addition, the W Union Square Hotel opened at the park’s northeast corner, in the landmark building that formerly housed the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.
In March 2008, an 18-month renovation began on the northern end of the park. Proponents of the plan describe it as the completion of a renovation of Union Square Park that began in the mid-1980s that will improve the park by increasing the amount and quality of playground space, improving the quality and function of the public plaza, rehabilitating the badly deteriorating bandshell structure, improving the working conditions for park employees, and maintaining the “eyes on the street” presence of a restaurant at the heart of the park. Protests and political action in response to the original renovation plans resulted in a reduction in the degree to which the pavilion was to be renovated, a reduction in the total amount of space that the restaurant would occupy, and an increase in the amount of dedicated play space, but stiff opposition remains to the idea that any commercial uses might occupy the pavilion. Despite the fact that the overall amount of play space in the park will be increased as a result of the renovation, those critical of the plan claim that the bandshell pavilion itself ought to be converted to play space. The fate of the historic pavilion building is uncertain and has been brought before the State Supreme Court. On March 30, 2009, a judge dismissed the lawsuit against the renovation, paving the way for a seasonal restaurant in the pavilion.
One element of contention not related to the restaurant concession is the inclusion of a single line of street trees, spaced 30 feet (9.1 m) apart, along the north side of the plaza. Despite rumors to the contrary, the inclusion of trees was made possible without reducing the usable gathering space of the plaza by the simultaneous decision to remove a painted median strip that had separated eastbound and westbound traffic along 17th Street, thus increasing the northern limits of the plaza by several feet. Some critics feel that this line of trees will make the space less useful for large rallies although no barriers to free movement across 17th street are being introduced and the “temporary” metal rails, welded together to make a continuous fence along the north side of the site, will be removed as part of the renovation of the plaza. A double line of trees along 17th street had been planted years earlier as a monument to victims of the Armenian Genocide.
During the renovation the Green Market was temporarily relocated to the west side of the park, returning to the north end as of April 4, 2009.