The counterculture of Greenwich Village in New York City is legendary, although these days you’re more apt to see downsized Wall Streeters roaming around at midday rather than artists or activists. History is cyclical, however, and Washington Square Park, the epicenter of many social, political and cultural movements, is being renovated and of course there is a controversy.
The diehard Villagers still have a huge voice in the politics of the neighborhood. The park is a landmark, 10 acres in size and nearly 200 years old. It has seen hangings, burials, countless graduations, generations of kids, dogs, joggers, seniors, and drug dealers—you name it, it has happened in THE PARK, as I called it growing up on its West side.
I can recall tagging along with my dad as he went to hear the musicians in the Seventies on sunny weekends. All I wanted to do was get to the playground and the sprinklers but we had to listen to a few songs. We’d chat with the winos and bums; this was before homelessness, when the local wino knew me by name. I can still see the Good Humor Ice Cream Man and hear his cart bells. He wore a full uniform, a sweet old guy, who never failed to please the throngs of dirty kids on a hot summer day. With the first legitimate snow, a trip to the park was necessary on sleds or cross country skis.
Seasons were marked, big events celebrated, I can even trace the different phases of my life through the park. As a high school kid I spent hours, with my best friend, in our oversized men’s coats and scarves listening and swooning over one particular musician/ busker name “Zorki.” To this day when I hear the Traffic song Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, I get nostalgic for those days when time didn’t matter and listening to live music was my plan for the day.
So now the park is in the midst of a $16 million renovation. The plan is to create more green space and benches and update some of the features that were quite worn. The work is to be done in phases so the public can still enjoy parts of the park at any given time. The first phase is slated for completion in the spring of 2009.
The controversy comes from those who oppose moving the famous fountain, shrinking the public gathering spots and various other changes. Most of all, those who oppose the upgrades see the changes to be class oriented, a way to increase real estate values, please New York University and gentrify the quintessential concept of public space. Bloggers have taken to their laptops and sites have popped up on the internet with many New Yorkers chiming in.
At this time of year I always look forward to seeing the Christmas tree under the arch and remember caroling there so many times as a kid. I hear about the park drama often from my mom who still lives a block away. She is an active Villager, who has connections in the dog owning crowd and has been known to bang pots, with her cronies, to get the drug dealers to disperse. She appreciates how much creativity the park has inspired and worries the scene will change.
Our neighbor when I was growing up, who went on to write for SNL, Letterman, Seinfeld and the Simpsons, used to sit in the park with his partner dreaming up story lines. On any given day one can see jugglers, chess players, movie filming or people just hanging out enjoying the space.
I hope the park will retain its role as a democratic magnet, drawing people from all walks of life at all stages in life, from near or far. Change isn’t always easy, but I pray they keep the integrity and ethos of the park intact, and just spiff it up (a bit) so I can take my kids to hear music they won’t appreciate till they are older.