This Sunday I took a tour of the under-construction Washington Square Park with Cathryn of the Washington Square Park Blog and WSP Community Improvement District. 7 or so people showed up for a politicized discussion of the park’s history and future.
Our running discussion focused on why – Just why anyone needs such drastic changes to a fine public space, why anyone would undertake such an expensive and seemingly frivolous renovation without, for instance, even having a planner for the new playground.
One of the biggest changes will be the elimination of the circular enclaves of benches throughout the east side of the park. These spaces are the focal point for musicians performing on the weekends in particular, and allow park goers to take their time and just sit in the shade, instead of treating the park as a thoroughfare of commerce or policing.
The new park will expand lawn space at the expense of bench-seating and the ‘theater in the round’ space surrounding the fountain. Walking through the park, the error of this approach becomes obvious immediately – very few people spend time on the lawn relative to the number of people sitting on benches. Overall, this will make the park less usable, and less amenable to unexpected interactions with musicians, protesters, or even friends.
The Kimmel Center for University Life demonstrates the relationship between NYU and the park. The ‘front’ of Kimmel faces out towards the park; most of this side of the building is covered in windows, while the other side has almost none. NYU wants to make the park the backdrop to advertisements for itself; the million dollars it put towards the renovation creates a park that is easier to police and less interesting to anyone besides students walking through between classes. Kimmel was a similar effort to eliminate public space: the Loeb Student Center it replaced contained 19 more student offices, more student meeting rooms and provided a real space to assemble. Kimmel provides a sanitized, easy to police version of the previous student center, not unlike the relationship of the new park to the old.
Renovation will reduce the number of chess tables in Washington Square Park. That sucks.
The new park will put in planters along the main walkways leading to the center of the park from the east and west.
To justify the renovation, Parks refers to ‘restoring the 1870’ fountain and returning the park to its historical function. Turns out this doesn’t really matter – what matters is whether the park provides for the real people inhabiting it now, and the renovation almost intentionally runs amuck over the contemporary uses of the park. Also, the most important history of the park occurred during the 60s and 70s, as a site for counterculture revolutionaries and the anti-war movement – when the park was grungy (not covered in granite and filled with lawns), and the fountain was off-center from the arch.
This is of the Northwest corner of the park. Each corner will look roughly like this one – straight paths, no benches, etc. etc…
At the end, we still didn’t have answers. No one could even imagine a reason to want the changes being made. Whether due to pure institutional inertia (“well, we changed Tompkins and Union Square, on to Washington Square…”), or some secret kind of self interest we as the public may never know, the Parks Department has undertaken a renovation of the park that seems to serve almost no one that actually uses it, without public input, at the behest of multimillionaire tobacco profiteers and an institution that intentionally makes itself almost totally unaccountable to its students or the public.