8/18/09 - washington square park

In today's excerpt - Washington Square Park internationally known symbol of Greenwich Village and New York City—a park that was almost destroyed by city planner Robert Moses—was first a graveyard, a gallows and a dueling ground:

"After the British took over in 1664, and renamed the city in honor of the Duke of York, the center of commerce remained in lower Manhattan, but English military officers built large homes to the north, in the countryside that reminded them of Greenwich, England. ... The spot that became Washington Square Park remained undeveloped, but it wasn't a park from the beginning. It was a graveyard.

"At the end of the eighteenth century, the city was in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic, and officials needed a place to bury the poor people dying monthly by the dozens. ... It is believed that some twenty thousand bodies remain under the park, and bones and skeleton-filled underground chambers have periodically turned up during construction and utility excavations.

"The area was also used as a public gallows—leading the big English elm at the northwestern corner to be called the 'hanging elm,' though no records exist of an execution from its limbs—and a dueling ground. ... Philip Hone, a wealthy military hero from the War of 1812 who became mayor of New York in 1826 ... launched a campaign for a military parade ground at the site, winning approval in time for a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the square was officially renamed in honor of George Washington. ...

"From 1830 to the turn of the century, the neighborhood around the park was the most desirable in New York. ... It was the Vanderbilts and Astors, whose lavish parties and costume balls prompted Mark Twain to call the materialistic post-Civil War era the 'Gilded Age.' All the while, a community of the arts and letters grew up around the square. ...

"The park got its signature arch at the end of the nineteenth century [when] city officials were planning the centennial of George Washington's presidency. ... It was instantly a postcard image of New York and Greenwich Village. ...

"Its central location also made it a popular spot for agitated New Yorkers of all kinds to hold protests, vigils, and demonstrations. In 1834, stonecutters unhappy with New York University's decision to use prison labor for the marble fixtures for its campus buildings fanned out around the park smashing windows and marble mantels. Fifteen years later it was the Astor Place Opera House riot, pitting English against Irish. Then came the draft riots of 1863, when predominantly Irish laborers roamed the streets around the park, cutting telegraph lines and beating and killing black men. Suffragettes and veterans of the Spanish-American War marched through. ...

"At the turn of the twentieth century, Greenwich Village became a magnet for rebellious artists, painters, writers, and social commentators. Walt Whitman and the newspaper pioneer Horace Greeley were in the vanguard, hanging out at the nearby beer hall Pfaff's. ... The Village continued its spirit of rebellion through the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and was, naturally, the site of several infamous speakeasies. ... In the 1950s the beat writer Jack Kerouac, the poet Allen Ginsberg the jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and folksingers like David Sear all came to inhabit the cafes and clubs and studios and apartments of [the neighborhood].

"As an urban historian [preservation activist] Jane Jacobs appreciated the extraordinary evolution from cemetery, gallows, and dueling ground to a setting for Victorian promenades and classic Beaux Arts monumentality, to an outdoor rendezvous for Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, and on into the age of Aquarius. Hoop dresses to black jeans: that was the power of a place that was unplanned and organic. It was everything that was proper and respectable and aristocratic about New York City life—and at the same time it represented rebellion against the establishment authority and order."


Anthony Flint


Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City


Random House


Copyright 2009 by Anthony Flint


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