West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 14 | September 5 - 11, 2007

Talking Point

Washington Square’s ‘radical redesign’ was in ’69

By Gil Horowitz

I am a member of the Washington Square Park Task Force and strongly support the Quinn-Gerson agreement as a way to resolve major differences among community preferences regarding Washington Square Park. I was, formany years, treasurer of Friends of Washington Square Park, an arm of the Washington Square Association, was an appointed member of Community Board 2 and on its Parks Committee during the 1980s and ’90s, and am currentlypresident of the Washington Square-Lower Fifth Avenue Bock Association, which represents many thousands of residents, mainly co-op owners, aroundWashington Square and on Lower Fifth Avenue.

We are part of The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, which includes the Washington Square Association, Friends of Washington Square Park, The Washington Square Park Association, The Washington Square-Lower Fifth Avenue Block Association, The Washington Square Hotel, the Square Arch Realty Corporation [Two Fifth Ave.] and other groups.

I have enjoyed Washington Square Park since the 1950s, when I was a student at New York University, and have lived steps from Washington Square Park for more than 40 years, as a resident of Two Fifth Ave., overlooking Washington Square Park.

First, thank you for recently publishing two letters from the many community residents who support the planned redesign of Washington SquarePark. Talking points and many letters from opponents of the redesign, including the self-appointed nonexperts Jonathan Greenberg and Luther Harris and their associates, published by The Villager gave the impression that few if any in the community, however that may be defined, wanted any change in Washington Square Park, except perhaps for a costly and ineffective “repave” of the outdated and never-well-conceived 1969 Nichols redesign of the park.

Quite to the contrary, almost all residents of the Washington Square community yearn for the new dawn of the park, once beautiful and graceful in design and world famous in use, and now a slum in the heart of the Washington Square community. The 1969 Nichols design took the historic and graceful Washington Square Park from a very green park to a parking lot, on theassumption and absurd notion that the community needed more pavement, not more green. Green is what parks are all about.

Moreover, since its inception, Washington Square Park moved from a parade ground to a park by enclosing the square with a high, wrought-iron fence to mark off the green oasis from the surrounding city pavement. The 1969 Nichols design reversed this concept by increasing pavement and decreasing green space within Washington Square Park. The greener and essentially level design prior to the 1969 Nichols defacement of Washington Square Park, regularly attracted those who were or would become world-famous performers, including The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, among many others, who performed in the park. Since the inception of the 1969 Nichols design, completed in 1970, the notable musicians stopped appearing in Washington Square Park; the world-famous notable musicians were not associated with the 1969 Nichols design, as some would mislead your readers to misbelieve.

Part of the original mystique was location, with Washington Square at the crossroads of the Village community, part timing of history and part thevery natural and graceful very green, level design prior to the 1969 Nichols defacement of Washington Square Park. Nichols’s design artificially chopped up the 9.9 acres that is Washington Square Park into mini-areas for isolating activities, which have never worked as well as the prior organic flow patterns of use that the prior design — which was greener and more graceful — permitted.

Nichols’s plan was, simply put, bad landscape design and out of accord with the historic nature of Washington Square Park, which had three features that encouraged organic flow: grace of design, extensive green areas and an essentially level surface, which permitted interacting flow amongst the park users. Jane Jacobs’s reference to “theater-in-the-round in Washington Square Park” appears in her 1967 book, and refers to the area around the fountain in thepre-Nichols design. She was not referring to the current Nichols design, as some would have your readers believe, since the Nichols design did not yet exist when Jane Jacobs wrote about the theater-in-the-round in 1967.

Because of location at the crossroads of the Village and the historic artwork within Washington Square, notably the beautiful fountain, which had been earlier relocated from Central Park in one of several prior redesigns, Washington Square Park remained somewhat historic and world recognized, despite Nichols’s degrading redesign.

(The park’s original fountain had been significantly larger, by more than 30 percent, and was in place before the arch was even conceived, much less before the arch’s cornerstone was set in 1890.)

Gone now is the historic fence that had, from the inception of Washington Square Park, marked the green oasis from the surrounding city pavement. The expansive green is now gone, replaced by pavement, the antithesis of what parks are all about. And the fountain is now structurally deteriorating badly, in dire need of conservation, and its underlying plumbing — which has not been properly repaired since 1969 — is leaking badly.

It is untrue that the park’s historic designers deliberately offset the fountain from the arch to provide a “quirky” design. The proposed new redesign is also asymmetrical, as were all prior designs. And the arch had simply not existed when the fountain location was set, making it impossible that the designers had planned the lack of alignment. Historic accident caused this loss of continuity from the fountain to the arch, the two major artworks within Washington Square. The new design, at virtually no cost — since the fountain must be dismantled anyway for repair — corrects this accident of history.

Regarding claims by Luther Harris and Jonathan Greenberg that the proposed central plaza in the redesign will be 25 percent or 23 percent smaller than the current central plaza — whichever mistaken claim by either of theseself-appointed nonexperts you may choose to misbelieve — the actual proposed pavement reduction in the central plaza is 11 percent. The Quinn-Gerson agreement requested reduction of no more than 10 percent, although Speaker Quinn and Councilmember Gerson seem to agree that because of designchallenges, the 11 percent proposal is within the spirit of their agreement.

The Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park will continue to remain cooperative and flexible in working through the many continuing challengesthat this historic park’s soon-to-begin redesign will present. We thank Quinn and Gerson for their ongoing cooperation and continuing assistance in moving forward this long-awaited and much-needed park restoration.

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