Volume 79, Number 5 | July 8 - 14, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photos by Harry Bartle

Above, Stephen Maniloff settles contentedly into one of Washington Square Park’s remaining old-style benches.

New-style benches don’t sit well with park regular

By Harry Bartle

The recent renovation of Washington Square Park has been discussed to death over the past month: the newly aligned fountain, reconfigured plaza, expanded lawn spaces. The restoration has some Village residents tearing out their hair and others reaching for their picnic baskets.

“The death of a classic bohemian setting!” cry the renovation’s critics. “Improved greenery and a safer environment!” counter the project’s supporters. The debate has raged for years since the plans were first released, and with the renovation’s phase two set to begin this summer, there’s no end in sight.

Now yet another issue has emerged over which parkgoers are disagreeing: the new benches.

In the park’s renovated section, the old wooden benches have been replaced with new ones made of tropical hardwood staggered along the new pathways. While environmental activists are outraged about the use of rainforest wood, one Villager has another complaint: The new benches are simply uncomfortable, in his opinion.

Longtime Village resident and park denizen Stephen Maniloff, 63, said the minute he sat down on one of the new seats something just felt wrong.

“It’s my worst nightmare,” he said. “The benches are just egregious.”

For Maniloff, the difference between the new and old benches is night and day.

“There’s something about the old benches that really draws you in. Your energy is perfectly focused; you’re at ease,” he said wistfully.

Indeed, to see Maniloff settling into one of the older benches in the park’s as-yet-unrenovated eastern section is to witness a man in a state of utter relaxation. Wedging his body diagonally into the seat — with his back against both the armrest and the back of the bench — he stretched his left arm out over the top of the bench, keeping his right elbow planted on the armrest. He casually crossed his right leg over his left, and stared attentively at the book firmly placed on his right thigh. Aaah...nirvana in a seated position.

Throughout the 23 years he’s lived in the Village, particularly during the last six, when he went from working part time to being retired, Maniloff said the park has been his second home.

While admitting he was prepared not to like the new benches, Maniloff was still devastated by their design, which he likens to a sort of ejector seat.

“When you sit on the new benches, your first thought is ‘I’ve got to get up,’” he said. “There’s nothing that pulls you in; instead, everything propels you out.”

Maniloff was vague when it came to addressing the particular physical characteristics that made the seating so uncomfortable. But he did mention that the benches lacked the proper “S” contour, and that the armrests — considerably lower than those of the old benches, apparently to prevent people fitting their feet through and lying down — were essentially unusable.

According to Maniloff, this apparent discomfort was no accident, either. He refuses to believe that the renovation’s designer, George Vellonakis, who also did the recent renovation of Father Demo Square on Sixth Ave., could have unknowingly picked perfectly fine benches for Demo Square and such abysmal benches for Washington Square. After all, Maniloff said, Vellonakis is a “self-described detail fanatic.”

“They’re trying to turn it into a passing-through park; the benches are just part of it,” Maniloff explained. “I can see these benches at City Hall Park, where you sit, eat your lunch and leave — not at this park. This used to be a lingering park. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they were choosing the benches: Did they look at 10 options and pick the most uncomfortable one?”

Other park frequenters, however, did not share Maniloff’s sentiment. Tony Hiss, a Villager since 1947 and a member of the board of directors of the Village Alliance business improvement district, had no issue with the benches.

“I feel nothing wrong here. They seem to be standard,” said Hiss, retesting a new bench. “The armrests are fine. I’m in a relaxed position. Actually, they’re pretty comfortable.”

Hiss, 67, the son of Alger Hiss, attributed most of the bench complaints to a slight paranoia that he said is a Village characteristic.

“Things have gone wrong for so many years,” he said. “We’ve fought off so many bad things that people have started viewing any change as inherently negative.”

Seeking an objective professional opinion, The Villager asked David Cowan, an ergonomics expert from Inch Incorporated, a product-design firm in Brooklyn, to analyze the new benches’ configuration. Upon review, Cowan had only good things to say about them.

“The new benches are ergonomically superior to the others,” he said. “The subtle shape of the base should certainly be appropriate for a wide variety of body types, and the lumbar support seems to be perfectly placed.”

In fact, Cowan found the park’s older benches — of which there were actually two types — to be of a considerably lesser grade.

“The first set is too curved,” he said. “It keeps you from scooting back far enough to be at the right position at the backrest. In the second, flatter set, the seat-back angle is too upright, there’s a lack of curve in the base; it does a poor job of keeping you in place.”

On both of this reporter’s visits to Washington Square, all the new benches were mostly filled — there were only a few empty spaces not claimed by relaxed sitters, readers and mothers and nannies with baby carriages. There was no discernible difference between the types of people at the new versus the old benches, either. Judging purely by numbers, the newer ones actually seemed more popular.

“The park seems to be attracting all of the same characters,” said Hiss, though he noted he had seen more couples. “No one seems to be avoiding the benches.”

No one — except Maniloff, that is. The disgruntled retiree has already moved part of his daily park-sitting regimen to Father Demo Square in protest of the new benches. If the renovation’s second half features the same bench model, the park could lose one of its most committed bench sitters of the past few years.

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