Watching the screening of the work-in-progress documentary “SQUARE: Straightening out Washington Square Park” last night at the Bowery Poetry Club, there was some key footage featuring Parks Department designer George Vellonakis. It is his plan that cuts up and moves all the pieces in this successful park into configurations and contortions that few prefer – and yet the plan proceeds.
One moment that stands out (among many) illustrates his empathy. Who does Mr. Vellonakis have empathy for? The community who likes the park the way it is? No. The trees that have stood in the park for 80 years that he wants chopped down? Not quite. His empathy is reserved for the “poor tourists” who (he believes) can’t take good pictures of themselves with the famous Arch behind them — because there is a tree in the way!
Well, luckily, those tourists have Mr. Vellonakis, NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe, and Mayor Bloomberg on their side because that obstructionist tree (along with 13 others) is no longer there!
There is much discussion of the “aligning” of the fountain in the film — the Parks Department plan is to move it 23 feet east so that it aligns with the Arch at Fifth Avenue. There’s much appreciation by users of the Park of the un-alignment of the fountain and the Arch. Something about the fountain not being connected to Fifth Avenue works when you enter Washington Square Park: you escape the city – yet you meld with your neighbors within it in unimaginable and unique ways. It’s a great public space. Mr. Vellonakis’s design aspires to destroy that.
But a little known fact that is somewhat key is that the fountain actually IS aligned. It’s not a mistake that it was in that specific location.
In Emily Kies Folpe’s book, It happened on Washington Square, she writes at length about the installation of the fountain. She states that the fountain was “placed at the midpoint of the park’s east-west axis, the fountain gave the Square a definitive central focus.” The fountain was installed in 1870 and “dominates its center.” When the park was redesigned in 1871, retaining that focal point was a key part of the design plan. Folpe writes in her 2002 book, “Despite later changes, the legacy of the 1871 design lingers on in today’s Washington Square.”
Until Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Parks Department get their way, and move the famous fountain to align with the Arch, and that’s the end of something that’s worked quite successfully for 137 years.
** The above is a schematic of the new redesign. Don’t let all the greenery fool you.**