Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park is one of the best-known of New York City’s 1,900 public parks. At 9.75 acres (39,500 m2), it is a landmark in the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village, as well as a meeting place and center for cultural activity. It is operated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
An open space with a tradition of nonconformity, the park’s fountain area has long been one of the city’s popular spots for residents and tourists. Most of the buildings surrounding the park now belong to New York University, but many have at one time served as homes and studios for artists. Some of the buildings have been built by NYU, others have been converted from their former uses into academic and residential buildings. Although NYU considers the park to be the quad of the school’s campus,[citation needed] Washington Square remains a public park.
Located at the foot of Fifth Avenue, the park is bordered byWashington Square North (Waverly Place east and west of the park), Washington Square East (University Place north of the park), Washington Square South (West 4th Street east and west of the park), and Washington Square West (MacDougal Street north and south of the park).
While the Park contains many flower beds and trees, little of the park is used for plantings due to the paving. The two prominent features are Washington’s Arch and a large fountain. It includes children’s play areas, trees and gardens, paths to stroll on, a chess and scrabble playing area, park benches, picnic tables, commemorative statuary and two dog runs.
Those commemorated by statues and monuments include George Washington; Italian patriot and soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi, commander of the insurrectionist forces in Italy’s struggle for unification, and one toAlexander Lyman Holley, a talented engineer who helped start the American steel industry after the invention of the Bessemer process for mass producing steel.
The New York City Police Department operates security cameras in the park. The New York University Department of Public Safety also keeps a watch on the park, and the city parks department has security officers who sometimes patrol the park. The area has a low crime rate in the “safest big city in the United States.”
Colonial era: Agricultural use and the “Land of the Blacks”:
The land here was divided by a narrow marshy valley through which Minetta Creek (or Brook) ran. In the early 17th century, aNative American village known as Sapokanikan or “Tobacco Field” was nearby. They also owned the land known now as Washington Square Park before the Dutch attacked and drove them out. By the mid-17th century, the land on each side of the Minetta was used as farm land by the Dutch. The Dutch gave the land to slaves, thus freeing them, with the intention of using them as a human ‘buffer zone’ between (the attacks of) the Native Americans and the white colonial settlements. The slaves that received the land were told that, although they were no longer slaves, they had to give a portion of the profits they received from the land to the Dutch East India Company. Also, their children would be born as slave, rather than free. For this reason, Prince Kusi [who?], a prominent New York-based writer and social commentator, compares the situation to the modern day sublet. The tract was in the possession of African Americans from 1643 to 1664. Today, the area, then called “The Land of the Blacks,” is Washington Square Park. The ex-slaves who owned “The Land of the Blacks” included Paulo D’angola. More information can be found at the exhibit “Slavery In New York” at the New-York Historical Society of Manhattan.
Early 1800s use as a burial ground:
It remained farmland until April 1797, when the Common Council of New York purchased the fields to the east of the Minetta (which were not yet within city limits) for a new potter’s field, or public burial ground. It was used mainly for burying unknown or indigent people when they died.[4] But when New York (which did not include this area yet) went through yellow fever epidemics in the early 19th century, most of those who died from yellow fever were also buried here, safely away from town, as a hygienic measure.
A legend in many tourist guides says that the large elm at the northwest corner of the park, Hangman’s Elm, was the old hanging tree. Unfortunately for the legend, the tree was on the wrong side of the former Minetta Creek, where it stood in the back garden of a private house. Records of only one public hanging at the potter’s field exist. Two eyewitness to the recorded hanging differed on the location of the gallows. One said it had been put up at a spot where the fountain is now, the other placed it closer to where the Arch is now.
The cemetery was closed in 1825. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square.
Birth of Washington Square:
In 1826 the City bought the land west of the Minetta, the square was laid out and leveled, and it was turned into the Washington Military Parade Ground. Military parade grounds were public spaces specified by the City where volunteer militia companies responsible for the nation’s defense would train.
The streets surrounding the square became one of the city’s most desirable residential areas in the 1830s. The protected row of Greek Revival style houses on the north side of the park remain from that time.
In 1849 and 1850, the parade ground was reworked into the first park on the site. More paths were added and a new fence was built around it. In 1871, it came under the control of the newly-formed New York City Department of Parks, and it was re-designed again, with curving rather than straight secondary paths.
Construction of the arch:
In 1889, to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration aspresident of the United States, a large plaster and wood Memorial Arch was erected over Fifth Avenue just north of the park. The temporary plaster and wood arch was so popular that in 1892 a permanent marble arch, designed by the New York architect Stanford White, was erected, standing 77 feet (23 m). During the excavations for the eastern leg of the arch, human remains, a coffin and a gravestone dated 1803 were uncovered 10 feet (3 m) below ground level. The inscription on the arch reads:
Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God. — Washington
White modeled the arch after the 1806 Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1918 two statues of George Washington were added to the north side.
The first fountain was completed in 1852. The fountain was replaced in 1872. The monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi was unveiled in 1888.
Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, and Shirley Hayes:
Robert Moses became the Parks Commissioner in 1934. He embarked on a crusade to fully redesign the park and local activists began an opposing fight that lasted three decades.
In 1934 Robert Moses had the fountain renovated to also serve as a wading pool. In 1952 Moses finalized plans to extend 5th Avenue through the park. He intended to eventually push it through the neighborhood south of the park, as part of an urban renewal project. Area residents, including Eleanor Roosevelt, opposed the plans. The urbanist Jane Jacobs became an activist and is credited with stopping the Moses plan and closing Washington Square Park to all auto traffic. But Jacobs, in her bookThe Death and Life of Great American Cities, praised another local advocate in the fight against park traffic, Shirley Hayes: “[Hayes and the Washington Square Park Committee] advocated eliminating the existing road, that is, closing the park to all automobile traffic — but at the same time, not widening the perimeter roads either. In short, they proposed closing off a roadbed without compensating for it.”
Hayes, former Chairman of the Washington Square Park Committee and member of the Greenwich Village Community Planning Board, a local resident and mother of four sons, started a public outcry for the park when large apartment buildings were raised on one of its borders. When then-Manhattan Borough president Hulan E. Jack suggested an elevated pedestrian walkway over a four-lane road through the park, Ms. Hayes initiated “Save the Square!”, a seven-year battle to keep automobiles out of the quiet area. Though several different proposals were given for a roadway in the park, Hayes and her followers rejected them all. Seeking to “best serve the needs of children and adults of this family community,” Hayes in turn presented her own proposal: 1.75 acres (700 m2) of roadway would be converted to parkland, a paved area would be created for emergency access only, and all other vehicles would be permanently banned from the park. This plan received widespread support, including that of then-Congressman John Lindsay as well as Washington Square Park West resident Eleanor Roosevelt. After a public hearing in 1958, a “ribbon tying” ceremony was held to mark the inception of a trial period in which the park would be free of vehicular traffic. In August 1959, the efforts of Ms. Hayes and her allies paid off: from that time forward Washington Square Park has been completely closed to traffic. A plaque commemorating her tireless crusade can be seen in the park today.
Folksingers, police attacks, and the so-called “Beatnik Riot”:
Since around the end of World War II, folksingers had been congregating on warm Sunday afternoons at the fountain in the center of the park. Tension and conflicts began to develop between the bohemian element and the remaining working-class residents of the neighborhood. The city government began showing an increasing hostility to the use of public facilities by the public, and in 1947 began requiring permits before public performances could be given in any city park. In the spring of 1961 the new Parks Commissioner refused a permit to the folksingers for their Sunday afternoon gatherings, because “The folksingers have been bringing too many undesirable elements into the park.” (“Undesirable” in this context meant primarily “beatniks”.)
On Sunday, April 9, 1961 folk music pioneer Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center (who had been trying to get permits for the folksingers) and about 500 musicians and supporters gathered in the park and sang songs without a permit, then held a procession from the park through the arch at Fifth Avenue, and marched to the Judson Memorial Church on the other side of the park. At about the time the musicians and friends reached the church, the New York Police Department Riot Squad was sent into the park, attacked civilians with billy clubs, and arrested ten people. The incident made the front pages of newspapers as far away as Washington D. C. The New York Mirror initially reported it as a “Beatnik Riot” but retracted the headline in the next edition. These tensions did not die down for some time.
The 60s to the 90s:
In the first half of the 1960s the park was a quiet, community oriented and well policed. In 1969 the park underwent a $1 million dollar rehabilitation. By 1971 an air of menace permeated the park at certain times. Drug selling, alcoholics and exhibitionists sexual and otherwise scared away families. During this era was a gathering of a mixture of folks from all over the world and the local students of NYU, other students, and conglomeration of all colors of people. People would gather to listen to the music, “chill” out, meet other people and have an entertaining afternoon or evening. Many street performers would perform: from comics, who later became notable, to fire eaters, dancers, skaters to still the folk singers who continued to perform all around the square drawing many people to also sing along for a day of excitement and enjoyment. It was also the gathering place for protests and other counter-cultural activities. The police during the eighties and nineties along with possible community support began to monitor the park. There was a decision to renovate the park and during the time of renovation and after, the park lost its 1960s-90s appeal according to many. A visit to Union Square Park took over for some of that appeal during this time.
Renovation, 2007-present:
In December 2007 the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation began construction on a US$16 million project to redesign and refurbish Washington Square Park. Changes to the park’s design include the realignment of the central fountain with the arch, a replacement of the existing perimeter fence with a taller iron fence, and the flattening and shrinking of the central plaza. Controversially, the plan calls for the cutting down of dozens of mature trees and the reinstitution of ornamental water plumes in the fountain – changes opponents worry will undermine the park’s current informal character.
So far, five lawsuits have been filed challenging the Parks Department’s renovation plans. A 2005 suit was withdrawn by the petitioners as premature. In July 2006, New York County Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman enjoined any renovation work on the fountain or fountain plaza area, pending further review of the plans by the local community board, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the Art Commission, stating that the Parks Department misrepresented the project in order to secure its approval; but this decision was reversed on appeal. Another lawsuit challenging the Art Commission’s approval of the plan was dismissed. Two more lawsuits questioning the environmental review of the renovation project were heard in 2007 by the New York County Supreme Court, then dismissed. On the first night of construction the Open Washington Square Park Coalition, a community group opposing the construction, held a candlelight vigil by the arch. Community members continue to criticize the movement of the fountain, as it is still not directly aligned with 5th avenue.
Upon the completion of phase one of the park’s renovation on May 22, 2009, the Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, a private organization, began raising money to “hire off-duty cops and maintenance workers to patrol the Park” by the summer of 2010.
On June 2, 2011, the eastern half of the park was reopened to the public, leaving only the park’s southwest corner under construction.

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