Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Reverend Billy praised the existing, fenceless Washington Sq. Park as sacred.

Protesters rail against fence; but some want it taller

By Lincoln Anderson

Though they were far outnumbered by the gathering of Dachshunds and their owners on the north side of the fountain, protesters against the Washington Sq. renovation plan still managed to make their point loud and clear at a rally in the park last Sunday.

Organized by Jonathan Greenberg, head of the ad-hoc Open Washington Sq. Park Coalition, the rally was held at the park’s Teen Plaza, a raised performance space that would be eliminated under the Parks Department’s $16 million refurbishment plan.

Speakers included Reverend Billy, the preservationist performance artist preacher; Norman Siegel, the civil rights attorney running for public advocate; and Mary Johnson and Eadie Selman, two residents living near the square. Also performing were members of Billionaires for Bush.

Speakers railed against the plan for an over-4-foot-tall fence around the park, saying it would rob the square of its historic openness and the right to assemble. In the same vein, there was criticism of the idea of a private, fundraising park conservancy — creation of which the protesters assume is inevitable given that only $6.8 million of the project cost has been raised for far.

“The first thing that must be renovated is our First Amendment rights,” said Reverend Billy. “I don’t care what little yuppie pretty thing they hope to make — the first thing is our First Amendment rights. Don’t let the conservancy take our park from us! Hallejujah!”

Kate Hill, a member of Village Independent Democrats, who has lived by the square for 10 years, said, “They’re more interested in creating a showpiece for tourists and the super-wealthy than the people who live here. I consider myself a well-informed person, but I knew nothing about this plan,” she said, adding she only found out about it after public meetings were held on it recently. Of the renovation and fence, Hill said, “I think we have to look at what is being done here in terms of social control.”

Taunted one of the Billionaires, the satirical performance group, “I hope you enjoy what will be one of your last days in the park — because we will be privatizing it.”

Civil rights attorney Siegel called the square “the quintessential open space.” On fighting the renovation, he said, “This is not going to be an easy struggle — it’s David versus Goliath.”

Of the idea of a fence and a potential conservancy-like body having influence on the park’s operation, he said, “That was two centuries ago, that was elitism. We don’t want to go back to a society where connections and elitism control decisions. What’s happening in Central Park, we don’t want to see it here,” he said, referring to the Parks Department’s announcement that it will now allow just two non-Opera or Philharmonic mass events on the Great Lawn per year.

Greenberg slammed the plan to raise the sunken central plaza to street level because, he said, it will lead to the plaza becoming a mere “pass-through pedestrian walkway,” instead of the unique gathering and performance space it is today.

“The park has a spirit, an energy to it, not because it’s a private garden,” Greenberg said, “but because of the people who come here.”

Pat McKee, manager of the park’s big dog run, spoke against moving the run to the park’s perimeter. “The Parks Department wants to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace an existing dog run that works,” she charged.

Selman said moving the fountain so it lines up with Fifth Ave. will mean the fountain will no longer be centered in the park.

“We are going to be absolutely lopsided and off-center if they move the fountain that way,” she said.

Aubrey Lees, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Parks Committee and co-chairperson of the C.B. 2 Washington Sq. Park Task Force, was at the Dachshund Festival with her dogs Harry and Eli.

“There weren’t many of them,” she said of the protesters. “It seemed to me there were more Dachshunds than protesters. I heard Norman Siegel screaming over the loudspeaker.”

She said she supported the idea of a conservancy.

“I hope there is a conservancy,” she said. “There needs to be something to maintain the park so it doesn’t fall into neglect and disrepair. So, whatever the vehicle is, there has to be some sort of fund, whether you call it a conservancy, or whatever, to make sure the park is looked after.”


Landmarks Committee O.K.’s renovation plan

On Monday night, Board 2’s Landmarks Committee voted on the renovation plan at its meeting in N.Y.U.’s Kaufman Management Center at 44 W. Fourth St. About a half dozen opponents of the project showed up and made a ruckus.

“They were yelling at the top of their lungs,” said Sean Sweeney, the committee’s chairperson. “There was a security guard outside for the entire evening — we called for him beforehand. The screaming really bothered us — I told them it was working against them,” he said.

Sweeney said the committee actually voted to approve a higher fence, 6 feet tall, than proposed in the plan, to replicate the height of the park’s original 1827 fence. The committee approved the plan’s new lighting, pathway changes, restored urns on the fountain and interior chain-and-post fencing. There was a split vote on moving the fountain, 4 to keep it where it is, 3 to move it, while the committee unanimously supported raising the plaza, feeling this would make it more accessible. A hearing on the renovation plan will be held at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 10.

Lees called the idea of 6-foot-tall fence “ridiculous,” adding that she supports the full board’s resolution that states if there is to be a fence it should be no higher than 4 feet.

She predicted, “This 6-foot fence is really going to send the opponents over the edge.”

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