Volume 75, Number 6 | June 29 - July 5, 2005

Talking point

Let’s come together to fix up Washington Sq. Park

By Matt Bardin

Washington Square. The name sounds so…square — like tea and crumpets. You picture earnest, young men in top hats and women in hoop skirts with umbrellas against the sun. Yet that has nothing to do with the square we all know and love. There’s something deliciously reassuring about how wrong sounding that name is; like they tried to cage our humanity, but it came bursting through the cracks and took over the place.

While some may think of Edith Wharton and Henry James, this is more famously the park of Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, Mark Twain, Willa Cather and William Carlos Williams — of Dada and abstract expressionism and Beatniks — of Bob Dylan and Jane Jacobs. This is where, even back in James’ day, Italian immigrants came to cool their feet in the fountain. At the heart of most of the objections to the current renovation plans lies a desire to sustain the open, public, exuberant vibe of the park. We are determined to see that this happens.

For many years, the Washington Square Park Council (www.washingtonsquareparkcouncil.org) has worked to improve the park for the benefit of the community. Our predecessors on the council played a crucial role in the renovation of the arch. Many of the council’s current members got involved because we heard the park was going to be renovated, and we didn’t want to see history repeat itself. Washington Square is the only park in Manhattan that has not undergone significant renovation during the last 30 years. That’s not been for lack of trying. But, in past decades, every time the Parks Department has come Downtown with pencil and paper, they’ve been met with such stiff and contradictory resistance that they’ve turned around and focused their efforts elsewhere.

During the past two years, we have worked hard to support the planned renovation while fighting for the community’s priorities. Early versions of the design that were presented last winter did not call for renovation of the park’s overused playgrounds. We got the Parks Department to agree to renovate and expand the large playground. The early plans showed the mounds area as a lawn. We got Parks to designate that space as a playground with play structures for older kids. We also played a central role in reworking the proposed new dog runs — both expanding them and separating the small dogs from the big.

Last fall, with the help of our board member, Mario Batali, we held a very successful fundraiser for the park. This summer those funds will be used to sponsor a variety of public programming, free of charge, including a series of performances and readings for children and a film series. W.S.P.C. is also the lead sponsor for this summer’s Washington Square Music Festival.

W.S.P.C. does not have an agenda about the fence, the fountain or any other single issue. We do have an agenda about serving this community. No matter how diverse our points of view, most of us can agree that we don’t want a park that feels formal or stuffy or closed. We all want a park that fits the character of the Village. W.S.P.C. supports the renovation of the park, because we believe it is long overdue. The paths are cracked. The fountain leaks. The “park” is dominated by asphalt, and what lawns there are don’t get enough light and water to actually grow grass. But walk through the park any time of the day or night these days and you’ll find people expressing concerns about the current plans.

Two issues stand out: the fence and the fountain move. Many oppose the fence, because they believe it will shut the public out. The under-5-foot fence that Parks is proposing will clearly not turn this into Gramercy Park, and fences around Madison and Tompkins squares don’t seem to make those parks any less open. But would this fence actually protect anything? And how would such a fence affect the park’s vibe?

Moving the fountain would not, as most people assume, cost much more than fixing it where it is (the understructure needs a lot of help). Centering it on the arch and Fifth Ave. seems to jive with the intent of the park’s original designers, who had it lining up with the main thoroughfare of their day, which was Thompson St. (in the 1820s, Fifth Ave. was somebody’s cow pasture); and we are huge fans of the two big lawns that the move helps create. On the other hand, leaving it where it is could preserve a more layered feel, forcing us to experience the park’s varied history.

Another issue that’s gotten less attention but may be at least as significant as the fence and the fountain move is the need for a permanent stage. Right now, the so-called Teen Plaza — the raised area on the south side of the park, which was intended as a hangout for teenagers (go figure…) —serves as a makeshift stage, even though it lacks basic necessities like electricity. One of the innovations of the current plan is to move the Holley and Garibaldi statues to the edges of their respective plazas and wire those areas and the area next to the arch, thereby creating not one but three performance spaces. But some performances require a stage. While temporary stages have worked in other parks — notably Madison and Union squares, they are expensive. The Washington Square Association, one of the city’s oldest civic groups and a longtime sponsor of the music festival, wants a permanent stage. They feel that, while other parks are known for public art or Greenmarkets, this one has been and should continue to be known for performance.

Some individuals in our community want to derail the whole process over one issue or another. Such folks see change as a threat to the soul of the ’hood. We disagree. Every other park in Manhattan has been renovated in the last 30 years without any noticeable loss in spontaneity. Even a fence won’t kill the energy and exuberance of this park. But even removing the fence won’t guarantee an open-feeling park or sustain the creativity that has emanated from this place for over 100 years.

This summer, we’ve hired a nonprofit organization that has helped organize community input for public spaces all over the world, to conduct surveys and study the current use and traffic patterns in the park. Then, in the fall, they will run a workshop for stakeholders, ranging from local residents to performers to students to maintenance workers and Parks employees. This process is an invitation to all open-minded people to engage thoughtfully with the park.

While none of the particular arguments against the plans is a slam-dunk (protests have drawn very small turnouts), perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As Carol Greitzer so eloquently put it at the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, the plan is “too formal for our informal neighborhood.” We share Greitzer’s concern, yet we are hopeful that armed with the results of our workshop and survey, the Parks Department will adjust the plans to reflect the community’s needs and desires.

W.S.P.C. has worked hard and will continue to work for positive changes in the park. Now is the time for this community to come together — to consider our park thoughtfully and to arrive at a set of priorities that reflect the soul and spirit of this neighborhood. The Parks Department understands the unique character of Greenwich Village. We believe that with this input in hand, they will provide adjustments to the plan that will result in a park we can all enthusiastically support.

Bardin is co-chairperson of the Washington Square Park Council.

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