Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Talking Point

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Ed Koch in Washington Square

How’s the park doin’? Awful. It needs a renovation

By Ed Koch

I moved to Bedford St. in Greenwich Village in 1956. Ever since, I’ve lived around or near Washington Square Park, and for the last 16 years, I’ve been living in the first building on Fifth Ave. north of the park.

In 1961, then-Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris evicted the folk singers from the park. I represented the folk singers as an attorney pro bono and we — Mary Nichols and others — called ourselves The Right to Sing Committee. We got Mayor Bob Wagner to overrule Commissioner Morris and invite the folk singers back. I was a soldier in the army of our community leaders — Shirley Hayes, Jane Jacobs, Mary Nichols and Carol Greitzer — working to stop permitting private vehicles to go through the park. People may forget, but back then Fifth Ave. split the park in half, running under and around the Washington Square Arch and connecting with then-West Broadway. We won, and the roadways were limited to emergency vehicles.

In 1966, I was elected city councilman for the area, and introduced legislation to successfully change the name of West Broadway to LaGuardia Pl. from the park south to Houston St. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed converting the roadway into a sunken boulevard that would have sped traffic through the middle of the park, eviscerating it. And, I, with Carol Greitzer, Greenwich Village district leader, got the buses out of the park the year I ran for district leader with her in 1963. Again, Mayor Bob Wagner, who we were supporting for re-election, helped us.

My political history early in my career was my association with Washington Square Park. In 1968, I was elected congressman for the area, serving in Congress through 1977. Later that year, I was elected mayor of New York City. Meanwhile, Washington Square Park has remained one of the most important parks in this city.

That’s why I am very involved with this park and that’s why I want to restore the park with the best of the past and the best of the future.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in and around Washington Square Park. After my discharge from the Army following World War II, and while I was attending law school at New York University, I was on the fringe of the artists, writers and musicians who made Washington Square Park the center of New York’s Beat generation. In those days, too, we opposed other city proposals that would have done great damage to the park. Later on, I was part of Judson Church’s Hall of Issues. I formed the MacDougal Area Neighborhood Association to assist the residents living in the area of the park.

Washington Square has gone through a series of evolutions since it was first established as a militia parade ground in 1827. Major renovations of the park in 1870, in the 1930s and in 1970 have all left an imprint on the unique public space that we all know so well and treasure. And this is as it should be, as each generation makes modest improvements to the walkways, plazas and landscape left by previous generations.

It has now been more than a generation since the last major renovation of Washington Square Park in the early 1970s. What looked new and trendy then — massive concrete retaining walls, expanded paved plazas, modernistic globe light poles — is more than a little dated today.

From my vantage point from my apartment and as a frequent walker through the park, Washington Square Park is looking tattered and in need of significant improvement. This is all the more evident when comparing the recently restored Washington Square Arch — a gleaming symbol at the foot of Fifth Ave. — with the crumbling asphalt and patchwork fences in the rest of the park.

Washington Square Park deserves a careful and judicious renovation so that the rest of the park will look as beautiful as the arch, and as attractive as all the other parks in Manhattan that have been restored over the last three decades. The proposal by the Parks Department will result in such a renovation, and it will serve those of us in the neighborhood well. The plan will remove some of the excess concrete from the 1970 reconstruction and increase the areas for plantings and floral displays. It will replace ugly expanses of asphalt with smooth paving and pathways and exchange the dated park lighting with lampposts more in keeping with our historic neighborhood.

Three parts of the proposal — moving the 1871 fountain 22 feet to the east, raising the grade of the plaza to the level of the rest of the park and installing a perimeter fence around the park — have aroused some controversy. The fountain is being moved primarily to allow the expansion of green spaces, particularly on the west half of the park that gets more sunlight. In fact, the Parks Department plan will remove hard surfaces and increase lawns and plantings by 20 percent. It is not a case of symmetry — but, in my view, lining the fountain up with the arch would also create a new and spectacular view of the park from Fifth Ave. Just imagine as you walk or drive down the avenue a shimmering fountain framed by the arch — a side benefit of moving the fountain; New York will have a truly distinctive place fit for our historic community.

Further, raising the fountain plaza returns it to where it was historically before the 1970s renovation, including during the period the park became the mecca for the Beat generation. Perhaps most important, it will also make the fountain accessible to people with disabilities. And the proposed 4-foot-high fence would be comparable to what currently exists in almost every other park in the Village and will help to protect the landscape at the same time.

I was originally against part of the plan because I thought moving the fountain was someone’s idea to simply improve aesthetics. Now I understand that the primary reason is to make the park greener. There have always been people fighting for or against things in the park, and sometimes they were right and sometimes they were wrong.

The current plan has been sensibly modified in response to the concerns of neighbors. It has been approved twice by Community Board 2, and two local councilmembers, Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn, have voiced support for the overall plan. Now it has to go to the Art Commission, which will review the plans for conserving and moving two statues and the fountain. I am a strong supporter of the Art Commission; when I became mayor, I reinvigorated the commission and directed city agencies that they must submit all plans to the Art Commission, and also got state agencies to submit their street furniture for review. I appointed one of the ablest people I knew as executive director — Patti Harris, recently appointed by Mayor Bloomberg as first deputy mayor. Patti enlivened the somewhat moribund organization by creating the Adopt-A-Monument program, publishing a guide to Manhattan statues and developing the Percent for Art program. With the help of great commissioners, the Art Commission brought new design standards to city buildings, parks and works of art.

Finally, as a veteran of the struggles in the 1950s and 1960s to make the city acknowledge the needs and desires of our neighborhood, I know firsthand the importance of Washington Square to the people who live here, as well as to the rest of the city and many tourists. It is our front yard (and backyard), and it attracts all manner of visitors who use the park in myriad ways. Following this renovation, Washing-ton Square Park will continue to play the role it has always played. The proposal by the Parks Department, supported by many in the community, will make our park livelier, safer and more beautiful for decades to come.

I urge the Art Commission to approve this plan. This should be a battle to support, not oppose.

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