News & Politics

Washington Square, “Proving Ground for Fads and Follies”


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
November 18, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 46

The fear has moved inside the park
By Clark Whelton

Something strange is happening to Washington Square. One year after its $1 million nose job, this park — the Greenwich Village green and a proving ground for fads and follies that won’t turn up in Peoria for another 18 months — is either (a) a tubeless tv set showing endless installments of the great American dope opera (b) an open, entertaining mixture of cultures and life-styles (c) a combination saloon and gambling parlor for a repertory company of aggressive black derelicts (d) a teenybopper Bowery featuring some of the city’s most strung out encounter groupies (e) an example of how a dynamic, creative community can labor for five years to produce a playground which now contains a lone surviving swing, a rotating platform, two ex-sandboxes, the world’s shortest slide, and a family of fat, scampering rats, or (f) all of the above.

The Square is seldom the same two days in a row. Sometimes it’s cool and quiet. The mandolin players are in their east-end alcove plucking out Mediterranean melodies, the perpetual volleyball game is thumping along, the patchwork plaza is deserted but pleasant, a mime troupe prances under the trees, the folksingers are pretty much on key, the chess players hunch over their tables, everything is calm and together.

So you go back the next day for more and right away you can feel the change. There’s something mean in the air. What seems to be a bit of street theatre turns out to be three drunks mouthing obscenities at a mocking audience. A dozen blacks shoot dice in the fountain, picking up money and laying it down while cops stroll past seeing nothing. Junkies sit nodding on the benches, the chess tables have been appropriated by poker and pinochle players, fist fights break out over spilled wine. At night the park is in deep shadow and only the most trusting tourists wander beyond the perimeter. Unconscious drunks sprawl on the three green mounds near the southwest corner, rivulets of urine running from beneath their bodies down to the bare earth where no grass has grown since spring.

If the park were ugly all the time it would be easier to take. You’d know what to expect and either arm yourself in advance or avoid it. But the unpredictable moods that swirl through the Square weigh you down with defenses you don’t always need and prevent you from enjoying the nice things there. Which means the park is no longer a place where you can go to escape the tensions and uncertainties of the streets. The fear has moved inside the park, too, and nobody knows how to get it out.

The story of how Greenwich Village’s front yard turned into a behavioral sink begins about 10 years ago during the post-beatnik pre-hippie intermission. Washington Square was still pretty much of a community park, well policed and quiet. Neighborhood kids sometimes added a little extra protection by running out people they didn’t like, thereby offending the surging spirit of the civil rights movement and local liberalism. The liberals wanted a new deal in the Village and Washington Square provided them with issues which quickly became rallying points in a struggle that knocked Carmine De Sapio and the old order out of politics.

First, plans for a highway through the park were killed and the Fifth Avenue buses were evicted. Then came the fight to allow folksingers to strum their minor-chord tunes of truth and justice on Sunday afternoons, a bitter victory which some Village traditionalists predicted would eventually turn the park into a sideshow. But the smell of change and progress was strong and the community’s blood was up. In 1964 the city’s plans for a scheduled rehabilitation of the Square were hissed down at a public meeting and a committee was formed to come up with something better. Bob Nichols, Edgar Tafel, and other Village architects did some new drawings, groups of local mothers asked for a hand in designing a creative playground, and expectations were running high. Many Villagers saw the park as more than just a pretty place to sit in the sun. It would be a symbol of a whole new kind of heightened social consciousness.

“It was a park designed in freedom for an era of freedom,” remembers Rachele Wall, then a member (now chairman) of the local Planning Board. “It was a park for people who liked to be with one another.”

It was also to be a park where people were welcome to walk on the grass and do and be whatever they wanted. In 1964, when anti-social behavior meant wearing both a beard and sandals, this seemed like a safe (and overdue) step. So, with a little push from Mayor Wagner, the new plans went through.

“The community go exactly what it wanted,” says Planning Board member Anthony Dapolito.

But the actual construction didn’t get under way until 1969, and in that five-year interval some very heavy changes turned American society upside down and shook it by the heels. The Vietnam War, Black Power, the twin epidemics of drugs and crime, none of these forces had influenced the original planning of the new park. But the wheels were turning and the Square went under the knife in the summer of 1969. When the bandages were removed a year later, things began to go wrong.

Bob Nichols, who had labored long hours in a thankless job, tried to keep the park closed until improved maintenance procedures could be devised, but the Parks Department bureaucracy wasn’t budging another inch and the public wanted in. The fences came down. Almost immediately, $40,000 worth of fresh grass was trampled into mud. The three mounds have to be paved over to keep them from eroding. The creative playground had been designed to run by the kind of mothers who had inspired it. But most of these women had moved away or lost interest (their children were five years older) and their concept of a European-type playground with a full time supervisor never had a chance. The new equipment began to break down and some of it never even got out of storage. Villagers who had been dubious about the community-designed park from the beginning began to be heard from.

“The people who designed that park are idiots,” says Myrna Posner. “That playground was thought up by a bunch of mothers who wanted free babysitting service.”

Other ideas, attractive on paper, went sour in practice. Junkies began to scale the new climbing poles and shoot dope in the brightly colored cubicles on top. A new rope swing at the three mounds went back to the ship never to be seen again. Although the central plaza was a smash architectural success, the kind of people who were now hanging out there kept most Villagers away.

“The new park needed a new social system to function,” Nichols says.

A new social system did take over the park, but unfortunately it was worse than the old one. Police protection vanished. Heroin pushers set up shop near the fountain. Welfare hotels and flop houses had brought to the Village not only poor families but also a new breed of don’t-tread-on-me derelict, who began to stake out claims in the Square. Some of them thought the lack of fences — one of the brave new ideas of 1964 — meant it was all right to spend their afternoons among the children and mothers in the playground. Masturbaters, exposure artists, and other show and tell types wandered in and out at will and the new crop of mothers was too frightened and disorganized to confront them. They just took their children someplace else. As the Village gradually backed away, the Square lost its last shreds of identity as a community park…

On the side of the Washington Square arch facing the fountain are chiseled the following words by George Washington: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.” Under the arch, three dope addicts pass pills and money, mumbling disconnected sentences as they stand around waiting for their damaged lives to elapse. Nearby a man talks about giving the hand of God a little help and hiring private guards to patrol the park. But it seems too late for anything like that. The social ecology of the park has been disrupted. Only a renewed use of the park by Village residents can stop the decay that has set in. According to sculptor John Terken, cracks in the statue of Washington on the Fifth Avenue side of the arch may soon tumble George’s head into the gutter. Unless the safety of everyone using the park can be assured, his words will probably go along with it.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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