World’s most famous oregano market.
Last year, the Washington Square Arch was liberated after a long period of captivity. For two years, the monument had been hidden from view by scaffolds and tarps, and had been locked away behind a chain link fence for nearly a decade in anticipation of the continuously delayed repair and cleaning effort. Now that the renovation is complete, the results are undeniably magnificent. The Arch once again gleams in sunlight and glows ghostly under its nighttime lamps, and every ornamental detail upon its façade stands out in brilliant relief. With the Arch returned to the public good as new, it is easy to gloss over the memory of what an eyesore it was for so long, and the fact that the restoration that deprived the public access to Washington Square Park’s most recognizable feature went ten years longer than it was supposed to.
Sadly, it looks like the Park in general is about to get treated in kind.
As protesters from NYU and the Open Washington Square Park Coalition gave voice to their opposition, Manhattan’s Community Board 2, convening on the night of April 21, did what the Parks Committee had done a week earlier — voted in favor of a massive overhaul of Washington Square Park. In a two phase, two-to-three year project with an estimated price tag of $16 million, the historic Park will be given a radical new design. On the agenda is the changing of paths, the moving of the dog run, reopening of the public restrooms, the installation of a four-foot fence around the entire area, elevation of the sunken central portion, getting rid of the rat problem, and, last but by no means least, the relocation of the fountain 20 feet east so that it lines up with the Arch.
Many have a hard time seeing why such a cataclysmic overhaul is necessary. After all, for a place where they used to hang criminals and bury yellow fever victims, Washington Square Park has come a long way. In 1914, the artist Marcel Duchamp and friends climbed atop the Arch to declare the independent Republic of Greenwich Village. Throughout, the Village has retained that sense of freedom and disposition toward the avant garde, nowhere more so than the Park. Among the jugglers and guitarists, poets and pushers, students, tourists, and canoodling couples, the Summer of Love lives on within its boundaries, albeit in a Weekend at Bernie’s sort of way. It’s NYU’s informal quad, desperately needed at a campus housing nearly 40,000 students. It is also a playground for the children of the Village, a haven for dogs, and a forum for all manner of performers and protesters.
In many ways, Washington Square Park represents to the Village what Central Park does to all of Manhattan. Both offer the area they serve a place of free relaxation and, more importantly, a little space in a crowded, overpowering metropolis. Imagine, then, the effect of closing down Central Park between the Lake and Columbus Circle for a year and a half, then the rest thereafter. Suddenly there’s no place Sally can swing, Rover can run, and Habib can hawk hot snacks. The surrounding community would suffer terribly, both economically and mentally. If the city were to proceed with such a project, there’d better be a damn good reason for it, and it had better come in on time.
Damn good reasons might include: cleaning up radioactive waste, discovering the Park is built over a volcano near eruption, unearthing a lost civilization, and ridding it of cobras. The Board’s reasons are considerably less persuasive. While obsessive compulsives may be thrilled at the proposal of centralizing the fountain, most Park visitors have never been bothered by the minor asymmetry, if they perceived it at all. Furthermore, the depressed area in which the fountain resides, which the Board considers a massive problem, is frequently cited as one of the more charming aspects of the Park’s anatomy. To be sure, there is quite a rodent problem. Any pedestrian taking in the Park after hours hears the bushes and trashcans alive with voracious vermin. However, that’s a good week’s work for any exterminator worth his salt.
The most controversial component of the plan by far is the four-foot fence to be installed around the Park’s perimeter, which would be locked at night. Opponents contend that this is anathematic to the history and tradition of Washington Square Park, and besides, will deprive couples of a place to make out in public after midnight. The principle behind it is that with the Park locked up, drug dealers will be locked out. While true, the fence idea does not take into account the facts that a) they will just move onto the streets of the Village to ply their wares, and b) they may start dealing actual drugs instead of the oregano they push now. Apparently the Board thinks closing off a famously open recreation area a more appropriate solution than, say, having the cops that are perennially parked on Washington Square South do their jobs.
Debatable as the merits of the proposed alterations are, they are not even the real issue. Consider the following: For a long time there’d been an undeniable need for the Arch to get an extreme makeover. Yet ten years ago, when the renovation was originally slated to start, it wasn’t in nearly the state of disrepair it had attained by the time the work got under way, after sitting behind a fence as the needed monies were raised. There is every indication that the same fate is about to befall the Park in its entirety.
Of the $16 million the overhaul will require, just over $6 million has actually been raised. As the project will proceed at the beginning of June, unless the Open Washington Square Park Coalition prevails in its fight to forestall it, the Parks Department and Community Board will have about a year to come up with the other $10 million. By all admission, most of that will be coming from private donations — or not coming, as the case may well turn out to be.
Everyone is united in the belief that Washington Square Park needs some work done. It would be nice to have a bathroom handy, and a welcome change if patrons didn’t have to share their Park with rats, regardless of their similarity to those miniscule dogs one sees riding in Louis Vuitton bags. Yet the radical proposal, which will be so disruptive and costly, could be better effected in smaller, more manageable segments. There seems to be a needless rush to accomplish what many in the community see as overreaching at best, and pointless at worst. The proposal first saw the light of day in February, was voted in by April, and will commence by June. This has not allowed proper evaluation of its feasibility, necessity and logistics.
Those who stand against the plan as it is now are not obstructionist for the hell of it, nor do they disagree with the fundamental need for work to be done. Their point is that if there’s a lack of funds, a lack of consensus on the redesign and a lack of need for the Park to be closed off in halves for three years, why isn’t more time being spent on review, and why aren’t alternatives being considered? Section by section, the Park could be renovated while still allowing it to remain what it has always been — the Big Top of the Greenwich Village Circus.