We won the battle for the square, but now are we at risk of losing it again?

Carol Greitzer, as a city councilmember in the 1970s, in Washington Square Park.

Carol Greitzer, as a city councilmember in the 1970s, in Washington Square Park.

BY CAROL GREITZER  |  Well, we’re all getting older. But while some of us gripe with our peers about our ailments, the newest octogenarian, The Villager, keeps going, as sprightly and energetic as ever.

For this article, The Villager asked me about cars parked in Washington Square Park. I don’t remember such parking, though, of course I do remember cars driving through the park, and Fifth Ave. double-decker buses using the park as a turnaround.

And I particularly remember the night (about 11:45, 1962 or ’63) when Ed Koch and I symbolically pushed the last bus out of the park. Perhaps The Villager has the photo in its archive. I can’t find it, though I know it exists. Getting the buses out of the park was probably the last chapter in the fight to keep the park closed to traffic — a fight whose many battles made the front pages of The Villlager quite often back then.

All of which leads me to set the record straight on one aspect of that fight. I’ve noticed lately that people — elected officials included — attribute the leadership to Jane Jacobs. Jane, of course, participated in that effort, as did most activists in the community. But though she was undoubtedly the leader in the fight to keep Robert Moses from designating (and ultimately bulldozing) part of the West Village as a Title I urban renewal area, and though she was the acknowledged leader and inspiration in the campaign to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway (a.k.a. the Broome St. Expressway,) from being built, she was not the leader in the Washington Square fight. That title indisputably belongs to Shirley Hayes, a park mother who, with Edith Lyons, back in the ’50s organized other mothers and started the loud — and, yes, sometimes strident — protestations about the cars, the fumes, the dangers of allowing cars and buses in the middle of a heavily used park. Once this campaign began to steamroll and look as if it had a chance to succeed, several other people (mostly men) formed their own group so as to present a more “respectable” approach to city officials, in contrast to Shirley’s stridency, which was what aroused their interest in the first place!

My goal is to make sure Shirley’s role is not forgotten. She didn’t raise money; you won’t see her name inscribed on some piece of park furniture, but she did something of major impact. Without her leadership and persistence, Washington Square Park would not be the place it is today. At the very least, there should be a plaque recognizing her efforts, like the plaque on the fence at Jackson Square acknowledging the Armani contribution to improvements at that park.

In the end, many Village groups united in obtaining park improvements, as chronicled over the years in The Villager’s coverage of park news, right up to the recent Oct. 3, 2013, issue, which featured an article on the park’s new conservancy. Perhaps an authentic history of the park could be compiled from the clips of these 80 years of your coverage. Or would you rather hold out for 100 years?

In reflecting on these past events it occurs to me that we’ve evolved, but not necessarily for the better. Back then, with three distinct political forces — an active Republican club, Carmine DeSapio’s Tamawa Club and the emerging Village Independent Democrats — we managed to get together, albeit heatedly, on community issues. Now, there are four women, well-intentioned though they may be, who appear to be in charge of the park, working officially with a park employee.

A major problem with conservancies is that there are no ground rules. Conservancies pop up suddenly, but with some connection to the Parks Department commissioner; they are said not to be really in charge — yet they have a status denied to other park users. There are hundreds, even thousands of people who feel passionately about this park, but now are confused about their role and the conservancy role. If there’s a problem, who does one go to? The conservancy? The community board? The Parks Department? Our elected officials?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other cities enjoy a closer relationship between the public and park managers. Many cities have monthly meetings where people can tell park officials how they feel. Baltimore has a public advisory council; Minneapolis has direct election of park commissioners; Chicago is currently querying citizens as to what they like and don’t like about their parks and how they want park funds to be spent. Chicago, incidentally, pays for parks in a unique way, one we might learn from. There is a Chicago Park District, an independent taxing authority that raises money exclusively for parks. Chicago is said to spend more per capita on parks than any other city in this country. New York City, by contrast, spends less than one half of 1 percent of the budget on parks, even while acquiring more acreage to manage.

Bill de Blasio, who seems likely to become our next mayor, has said that he wants to empower individuals and to involve communities. The Villager can celebrate the start of its ninth decade by asking our next mayor whether he might implement these and similar ideas to give all park users more of a say about their parks.

So happy birthday! Let’s blow out the candles and make a wish.

Greitzer was a New York City councilmember from 1969-91, representing the Village and other Downtown areas. Prior to that she was the Village’s Democratic district co-leader with Ed Koch. 

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One Response to We won the battle for the square, but now are we at risk of losing it again?

  1. "Married" to Bill DeBlasio………………..A Joint Memoir from Some Ex-Constituents

    Our affair with Bill DeBlasio began sometime in 1999 when he became our School Board Representative.

    We were attracted to his drive, his enthusiam and yes, even his ambition. He flirted with us–we responded.

    The marriage was consummated when we elected him our Council Member in 2001. He married each of us…all of the men, women and children of District 39.
    He appeared to be quite the catch—well-spoken, attentive, an engaged conversationalist who seemed to listen with every fiber of his being. He was tall, handsome, charming—He was a Democratic representative in a Democratic demographic–he had ties with a former President and was an advisor to a potential one—The honeymoon had begun. We were willingly seduced and felt very lucky.

    We were unaware then, that we did not even know his real name.

    It was not long before we learned that his style of representation was very different to what we had become accustomed to. He was not readily available by phone–he was rarely in his office and there were intermediaries that we were told to deal with instead of him.

    It seemed like he was never home.

    This was a very different type of commitment—one this corner of the 39th had certainly never seen before.

    Four years into our relationship, we renewed our vows, but it became clear that Bill had set his sights on much greener, much larger pastures. All of the signs were there and of course, conflicts arose.

    Developers seemed to be targetting our community. High rise, out of context apartment buildings tearing the fabric of our historic brownstone neighborhood–changing our surroundings faster than our infrastructure or current environment could possibly accommodate.

    What did our Champion DeBlasio do?

    He turned his back on us and opened his arms to a developer who had grand plans for a project that presented very real environmental concerns.
    Then, in April of 2009, the filthy Gowanus Canal was miraculously nominated to the National Priorities List–an event that any faithful partner would have cheered….instead

    Our Bill declared that the Canal "was not that dirty" and proceeded to support the New York City Plan which scoffed at the facts and scientific findings of the EPA.
    Perhaps if this had been the last of our disappointments, our relationship and inevitable parting could have been more pleasant. He was now the certain Public Advocate to Be and he had more than one foot out the door.

    But his final farewell, the last straw came when we learned that he very very quietly tried to push through a law which would exempt a project which was in direct contradiction to a hard earned zoning amendment he had publicly supported and widely claimed to take credit for!

    Bill moved on to his Public Advocate position–where his tenure left us, to put it politely, unsatisfied. The EPA vs the City of New York battle raged over the Gowanus Canal's future, and our Bill, our neighbor, our former partner and most importantly, OUR PUBLIC ADVOCATE, had not one word to say about the environmental/public health hazard coursing through the heart of his former district.

    Throwing his hat into the Mayoral race at the end of the Public Advocate gig, was not a surprise. We did find him predictable and ever self serving.

    It may come as a surprise to you that Bill can deride the worst landords in New York City on one hand and accept their money with the other…but it does not surprise us.

    One day Charter Schools must go–next day–they can stay if they pay rent–next day they won't be pushed out if they can't pay……all too familiar to us.

    Bill tells a tale of two cities combined with the I am Robin Hood stance. It is a catchy platform–who would not fall in love iwth someone who professes to better the lives of the poor, champion the underserved and better educate our children while taxing the rich?

    However, this same Robin Hood, this same equalizer, this former partner of ours has also publicly characterized himself both a progressive and a fiscal conservative. We suppose it depends on who is in the audience at the time.
    It seems as though Bill is counting on the fact that New York is still a Democratic city–and what he says will not really be measured or remembered.

    He is wrong.

    After all these years, we can say that we know the man known as School Board Member Bill DeBlasio. We remember the man known as Councilman Bill DeBlasio and we experienced the man known as Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio.

    We have seen the many shades of Bill and we know what a relationship with Bill DeBlasio might bring. Now, he is courting you.

    Published jointly by CORD and Pardon Me for Asking

    We encourage all of our District 39 neighbors to send your comments and/or your Bill DeBlasio experiences to cgcord@gmail.com.
    If you would like your comments published, please give us express permission in your email to do so.

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