Volume 75, Number 34 | January 11 - 17, 200


Pink urns versus performers in park

On Monday the Art Commission gave the final approvals needed for the overhaul of Washington Square Park. It brings to a close a year of wrangling and teeth gnashing over the plan and a process that didn’t adequately involve the community at the outset.

Perhaps the park will look better with the fountain and arch lined up. Maybe an at-grade plaza can still attract musicians and performers and be a welcoming place for creative expression. We’re glad the commission rejected ringing the fountain with pink urns as this touch seemed a bit froufrou to our taste.

Yet, the renovation does offer a lot. Green space will replace asphalt, and — after some initial tree felling around the plaza — trees will be increased in a realigned plaza shifted slightly east and in the park in general.

Drawbacks include that parts of the park will be closed at least a year and the fact that the whole job will take at least two years.

Another change could be permanent, however, namely that the park apparently will have a more decorative and ornamental character from its current freewheeling, spontaneous nature. This seems most apparent in the fountain plans. In recent years, the fountain hasn’t been turned on much because it’s been broken, Parks says. The dry fountain, of course, is a major performance space. When it’s on, children and others use it to play in and cool off in the summer.

But the plan for a 45-tall spouting plume and eight side jets shooting arcs of water means musicians, sword swallowers, comics and other performers won’t be able to do their acts in the fountain during the warm weather. Plus, Parks says, they’ll now need permits for large performances. And musicians will find it hard to jam on the fountain’s edge with water spraying on their guitars. Also, under new regulations, kids won’t be able to use the fountain as a wading pool anymore.

The park’s unique culture centers on the fountain. Making it an ornament is a fundamental change to the park’s zeitgeist. While Parks officials have repeatedly said at community board meetings, “use of the fountain won’t change,” clearly, it will.

Parks says an attendant will be around to adjust the fountain’s digitized controls. But we’re skeptical.

Noise is another concern. The park is restful now, the tranquility lightlly punctured by musicians and performers. But a plume four-and-a-half stories tall with more water blasting from the sides means constant, droning white noise. Don’t we have enough noise? We go to parks to relax.

Parks says it will fine-tune the fountain specs. Yet, even a two-story plume will be loud. One thing’s clear: Parks now literally — in the digitized fountain switches — and metaphorically, has its hand on the controls of Washington Square and its very activity.

We hope that Parks will, as Borough Commissioner Bill Castro said, carve out time for performances in the fountain. After all, people don’t come from around the world to Washington Square to see pink urns.

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