Volume 78 - Number 50 / May 20 - 26 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


A park is reborn

After a process that took years — from wrangling over the design to community lawsuits to drawn-out construction work — phase one of Washington Square Park’s renovation was finally reopened Tuesday morning.

The Parks Department couldn’t have timed it more perfectly, because the weather was magnificent, with the sun shining down gloriously on the sparkling new renovated part of the park.

After the chain-link fencing was removed in the early morning, a trickle of people entered at first. By early afternoon, with the fountain having sprung to life, the park was mobbed — and, in fact, looked pretty much the way it used to.

There were musicians strumming guitars, bowing fiddles, playing trumpets, pumping an accordion, rapping spoons on a washboard — playing Celtic folk songs and old-style New Orleans jazz. People were ringing the fountain’s steps — although the steps were no longer made of pebbly concrete but smooth, comfortable black stone. Little children were flitting around the fountain and playing with the new, improved water jets. There were even dogs sitting around the fountain. Neighbors strolled about, admiring the square’s spruced-up look. A tourist from Madrid asked us to take a photo of her in front of the arch. A man who looked like he might have been homeless sat on one of the fountain’s steps, his shirt off and some silver recorder-like device on his knee that he was looking at. There were students, filmmakers, tourists… . In short, this was exactly the Washington Square Park that we remembered and loved.

Of course, there are differences, a major one being that the park’s central plaza is now level, not angled like an amphitheater. However, judging by how packed the park was on Tuesday and how it was being used — basically, the same way it was being used before — it seems that the flattening of the surface won’t change the park’s fundamental, freewheeling character. In other words, it seems unlikely, in our preliminary view, that Washington Square will become merely a “pass-through” park because of its leveling, as some had predicted, as opposed to the famed place to gather and just enjoy hanging out that it has always been.

The new plantings are impressive and the lawns look lush and inviting. Hopefully, these lawns will be kept accessible. The new paving is a welcome change from the former cracked asphalt paths. After all the sturm und drang over centering the fountain with Fifth Ave., we have to say that it really is not such a big deal. The fountain could have stayed where it was, in our opinion, but it looks nice now in its central location, and does somehow lend a feeling of greater spaciousness to the park’s central plaza. Admittedly, a number of trees were felled around the plaza, which also adds to this sense of openness.

The new black-stone benches ringing the plaza look pretty classy and, we have to admit, on Tuesday appeared to be getting heavier use than the former pebbly-concrete retaining walls.

The secondary circular plaza area that used to have the Holley monument at its center seems a bit large and empty. But we assume that musicians or performers will soon be using it for their shows. It was partly made this way to eliminate a so-called “choke point” where drug dealers used to be entrenched.

We’ll still have to see how some things work out, such as whether musicians will be allowed to use the fountain again for performances.

All in all, we have to say phase one of the renovation looks, well, fantastic. Careful review of the next phase’s elements have already been underway. Let’s hope phase two is up to the high standards phase one has achieved. We congratulate the Parks Department and the renovation’s designer, George Vellonakis, on a job well done on phase one.

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