Volume 80, Number 50 | May 12 - 18, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Focus on Union Square | A special Villager supplement

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

A break dancer performing in Union Square hoped to make a little history of his own.

Statues, rallies, vendors and 200 years of history

By Terese Loeb Kreuzer

With a statue of Abraham Lincoln dedicated in 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, and a place in history as the terminus of the first Labor Day parade (on Sept. 5, 1882), the name of Union Square Park might be supposed to reflect either or both of those events. The origin of the name is far older than either, however, and more prosaic.

Union Square Park had its origins in 1815 when it was called “Union Place” and was named for the fact that it was at the union of two major city thoroughfares — Broadway (then called the Bloomingdale Road) and what is now called Fourth Ave. At the time, Union Place was a potters’ field where the indigent were buried. The name of the park was changed to Union Square in 1832 and it officially opened to the public in 1839.

Broadway and Fourth Ave. still merge near the east side of the park, which is bounded by 14th St. on the south, 17th St. on the north and a short street on the west that runs between the park’s northern and southern boundaries.

Now under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks, Union Square Park gets 150,000 visitors a day. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, a farmers’ market sprawls over the western, northern and sometimes the eastern sides of the park. Vendors of books, CDs and artwork hawk their wares on the southwestern fringe near a row of chess tables. A broad plaza on the southern flank is frequently the site of rallies and demonstrations. In 2010, the Parks Department issued 37 rally permits. In good weather, said a Parks Department spokesman, there’s one rally a week, though few are likely to be as impressive as the first one on record, which took place in April 1861 after the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. A crowd of more than 100,000 people assembled in and around the park to express their support for the Northern cause in the Civil War.

Union Square Park is the site of several important sculptures. A statue of George Washington that was installed in 1856 presides over an often-boisterous scene at the southern end of the park, where many young people like to hang out. The statue is the Parks Department’s oldest and was a significant achievement for its sculptor, Henry Kirke Brown, who worked on the project for 18 months assisted by a young man named John Quincy Adams Ward, who went on (among other work) to do the sculpture on the New York Stock Exchange.

Brown also sculpted the statue of Abraham Lincoln, which is now at the northern end of the park. It once stood on the southwest corner currently occupied by a statue of Mohandas Gandhi. Tables and chairs near the Lincoln statue provide a shady place to chat, eat and work with views of a pavilion erected in 1929 that will house a restaurant, probably within the year, and an innovative playground that opened in January 2010.

The flagpole in the center of Union Square Park dates from 1926 and replaced a fountain that once stood on that site. Tammany Hall had headquarters across from the park, and the Tammany Society donated money for the monument. The flagpole was originally named for Tammany Hall boss Charles F. Murphy (1858-1924), but Murphy’s name was dropped when it became clear that he had been involved in some serious financial skullduggery. The most egregious example occurred after New York Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck appointed Murphy dock commissioner in 1898. Shortly thereafter, Murphy’s brother leased docks from the city and made a 5,000 percent profit on his investment. When this and other transactions came to light, some New Yorkers protested that Murphy didn’t deserve to be remembered in a park that also honored George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of both the American and French revolutions.

The statue of Lafayette is on the east side of the park and is the work of Frédéric-August Bartholdi, who also sculpted the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Both were gifts from the French to the American people in recognition of a mutual pursuit of liberty. The Lafayette sculpture specifically recognized the aid that the U.S. government had provided to France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The sculpture was cast in 1873 and dedicated in 1876 — 10 years before the Statue of Liberty.

Across from the marquis, on the west side of the park is the James Fountain. Philanthropist Daniel Willis James donated it to Union Square Park in the 1880s. Originally, tin cups were chained to the fountain to allow passerby to quench their thirst. Known as the “Temperance Fountain,” it was erected at a time when fountains were placed throughout the city to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol. The fountain was sculpted by a German artist, Karl Adolph von Donndorf.

Union Square Park’s pantheon of heroes and statesmen is completed by the statue of Gandhi, which was installed in 1986. Though revered for his tactics of nonviolent opposition that succeeded in freeing India from British colonial rule, the statue itself has been mauled on numerous occasions. In fact, Gandhi’s glasses have been ripped from his nose so frequently that the Parks Department keeps a fresh supply. The most recent theft was reported last month on April 12.

In spite of its august heritage, Union Square Park has had its ups and downs. Over its more than 170 years, it has been the center of a fashionable residential district, then of a commercial district and by the 1970s, a hangout for drug users. The park still has it scruffy elements, but it’s nicer and safer than it’s been in years. The Union Square Partnership, formed in 1984 as a business improvement district and a local development corporation, has been instrumental in the park’s turnaround.

“Union Square serves a broad cross-section of visitors and there really is something for everyone here,” said Jennifer Falk, the Partnership’s executive director. That is not hyperbole. Sooner or later, whether it’s to shop, hang out or protest, many New Yorkers and visitors are likely to find themselves spending some time in Union Square Park.

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