Reflections on Sunday's New York Times article, "The Battle of Washington Square"

Sunday’s November 23rd New York Times cover featured a photo of the Washington Square Arch promoing the article, “The Battle of Washington Square,” which prominently appeared on the “City” section cover with an array of photos capturing the park’s illustrious history.

The Bloomberg Administration’s push to radically redesign this public space has been under the radar for way too long. However, let me be clear — the issue was never about anyone in the community not wanting repairs, upgrades and a spiffier Washington Square Park. The park needed a renovation as the New York City Parks Department let it fall into serious disrepair.

The issues were (and still are) about the Process – how this extreme revisioning of this prominent public space was pushed through – and the Design – what the park’s composition would ultimately be, one that chooses to ignore what actually worked and was successful about the park.

When first contacted by New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, I thought … at last the story will be told.

And it’s great the story has at last been told.  It’s complex and it has unfolded over more than four years.  It’s about community and democracy vs. money and power and a government subsumed by its own arrogance.  There is still more of the story to be told.  While the Times gives an overview of what’s transpired thus far and reminds us how important Washington Square Park is as a public space, the story still doesn’t quite get to some key facets of the argument, of the timeline, of the nuance, and sidesteps the city’s corrosive and corrupt actions.

Outlined below are my thoughts and supplemental information to the article which, overall, is a welcome addition into the dialogue around what’s transpired to date to Washington Square Park.

Blogging as “Venting” ?

Mr. Bowley, in a way that I’m sure – to his mind – was a vehicle to add color to the article, describes my blog as a way for me to “vent my frustration.” I consider the Washington Square Park blog a place for my writing and p.r. background to be put to good use. An outlet in the so-called “Battle of Washington Square” to: track the process, analyze it, write about it substantively, and advocate for change. I don’t believe that is venting.  The use of the word venting feels very old vs. new media.

Characterizations and Omissions

The cost of the project

The writer states that the park redesign will cost “$16 million-plus.” Very vague, especially since, Phase I alone, initially budgeted at $6 million is now costing over $13 million – by the Parks Department’s own admission. More than double the projected cost. So, is there any real way that the remaining TWO phases can be anything less than $25 million? In a financial crisis – and really at any time – is this the way our city money should be spent?

Unattributed statements

The story states: “Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements.” And yet none are quoted. It continues, “Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase I of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.”

Perhaps if the piece had not glossed over the lies by George Vellonakis — the “landscape designer” who was given license to alter this historic park with an unimaginative design — to the community; if Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was not given a blanket opportunity to make his greenwashing statements about the park being more “green” without a rebuttal; if the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board meetings – which are all on video and which the Times watched – were not just breezed through towards the end of the article, perhaps then, the reader would understand why people might be “bitterly angry,” if that’s even the case.

Characterizations

It seems to me that the City “officials” are put on pedestals in which they are immune to characterizations. In my opinion, on this playing field, we are all equal participants. If Adrian Benepe lies, that should be in the article. If George Vellonakis shows his arrogance in a meltdown on camera when he thinks his “design” might be stopped, he’s fair game. If George Vellonakis also lies and misappropriates information to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that should be in the article. That is part of the story. Understandably, that fuels community anger.  (Much of this footage is contained in the documentary mentioned in the story, SQUARE:  Straightening Out Washington Square Park.”)

What can be done?

I am glad that Graham Bowley – who assimilated years of information in preparing this story – and the New York Times covered the topic of Washington Square Park’s redesign despite some of the omissions from the piece.

I mentioned Saturday that my comments were inaccurate a few times in the story. And I would like to clarify this one, with which the article ends:

“[Ms. Swan] hopes that when Phase I of the renovation is completed and Phase 2 begins next year on the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the square, she may still be able to persuade parks department officials to save some of the trees or the pathways or the alcove seating that she says was such a facilitator of conversation.”

“The biggest question people ask is, ‘Why?’ Ms. Swan said. Why are they doing this?

“There was a huge mass of people who fought for three to four years,” she added. “A lot soon ran out of steam, but there are still some people fighting. Though I am not sure a lot can be done.”

I did not say that last sentence. I would never say that. I said, “[some] people do not think a lot can be done” or they don’t know what to do. But that’s not me, folks. I think a lot can be done to maximize and retain the dynamic elements of this public space, still.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Sunday's New York Times article, "The Battle of Washington Square"”

  1. Just thought I’d chime in to say that I thought, all-in-all, the NYTimes article was good for WSP. It brings much need attention to this important issue, and I’m sure that no matter what side one is on, it hit points that one agrees with.

    I also think, misquotes notwithstanding, you look extremely good in it and made your points. Old media always screws up a quote or two, so this could have been worse. Standing on the idea that we all want renovation – it’s just how and what – is strong. Good for you. And the sides didn’t seem too far apart.

    Old media calling bloggers “venting” is nothing new, and really doesn’t effect the Park either way. As for costs – if everyone were happy, price wouldn’t be a factor (unless conservatives complained about taxes). Unattributed statements – they can attribute me as I’ve accepted the changes – I don’t want people sitting on the fences (it’s not what they’re for and repairing them will cost more, sooner); the nice benches for chatting are a shame to lose, but they’re also great for dealing drugs, so they gotta go; and the new lamps harken back to better days in the Park, not the ratty ’70s – who (who knows the park’s history) really thinks that’s the best days of the Park to preserve? (but get back to me if they start cutting the big trees). And Characterizations are hard to avoid, but hey, we’ve come a long way since Moses when the Park was just a turnaround point for busses.

    I try not to relive my juggling/acrobat days, but I can tell you that the fountain has always been a dangerous place to perform, and too large to be heard fully in-the-round without amplification (no one is gonna re-fight that, I hope, so smaller is best); but it’s been better than the “stage” cuz the stage is so high, audiences can not see anything happening beyond the front apron without bleachers (so it’s only ever been good for music, and thus poorly used in all my 27 yr experience with it). And as someone who has always hated the dog-runs of the past 5-8 years (never before in WSP! – wanna dog? then don’t live in the City where they are ill-served. And where’s my ferret run?), I understand that no re-design is going to please everyone, but I’ll live with them, if others will live with changes that make the Park ADA accessible and with more grass.

    So, good for you on the Times article, don’t sweat the small stuff, and keep up the good fight!

  2. I thought it was useful that there is a prominent piece in the Times which at least admits that there is still controversy about the Parks Department’s redesign of Washington Square and the flawed political process that led to it. The Bloomberg Adminstration has commented before that “people will forget” what government does. One of the establishment’s weapons of choice is that patronizing “Get over it and get a life” attitude. To which I say, no justice, no peace! Christabel Gough

  3. Some other observations:

    1. The article mentioned how NYU “overshadows” the park, without mentioning how its buildings on the East side used to “grace” the park. The South side is of course an abomination. But this is just as NYU overshadows W. 3rd St. As NYU threatens to overshadow all of the East and West Villages.

    2. Part of the problem with stopping the Parks Dept, as Moses was stopped, is that there are a lot fewer Village residents. Not only have many of the old, long-time residents been forced out, often by NYU constructions (viz, W. 3rd St.), but each one has been replaced by 4x the number of transient NYU students in the dorms. NYU is winning this war by attrition. Every time they get a new building constructed, they’ve diminished the strength of any future opposition.

    3. It’s difficult to stop the Parks Dept and NYU–apparently because they have been able to get to our Community Boards for decades to help destroy the park, W. 3rd St., the Edgar Allen Poe house, Provincetown Playhouse, etc.–all against major community opposition.

    (I once wrote a long letter to The Villager bemoaning NYU’s destruction of the Village. The entire letter was published–minus a one-sentence, relatively mild critique of our officials’ collaboration in the process.)

    4. Vellonakis wants “viewing corridors” and “great, clean lines.” Just saw the PBS show “The Rape of Europa,” and this reminded me very much of Hitler’s vision for his proposed art capital in his hometown of Linz, Austria. (sorry, but the comparison this time just seemed so timely and apt.) Who in the Village ever valued viewing corridors and “great clean lines” outside of a Mondrian? Look up 5th ave, or any other Ave. or St. for a viewing corridor. Look in the Village for individuality and character.

    5. Not to mention the vast expense of relocating the fountain just to please someone’s painfully-obvious obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Thanks for your work!

  4. Thank you Gene for this interesting comment.

    You make good points about the impact of NYU taking over so much nearby Village property and how that’s affected what’s transpired and transpiring now.

    The Hitler reference – his “vision” as it relates to Vellonakis’s wish also for “great clean lines” and “viewing corridors” – is also an interesting one.

    Thanks also for your other comment about the Tisches a few days ago. I wanted to come back to it so I’m posting it below:

    ***********************************

    We already have a children’s zoo and a hospital named after a tobacco baron–now a fountain??

    Joe Cherner said to Larry Tisch: “Everyone knows you gave $50 million to New York University Hospital. It even changed its name to Tisch Hospital. This is the first time in the history of philanthropy that one man has provided the patients, the insurance, and the hospital.”

    Jimmy Breslin of the Daily News wrote, “One of their (Loews’ / Lorillard’s) brands is True. I know this because I know two people who died from True. Another brand is Newport. I can take Laurence Tisch, his son, his brother, Bob Tisch, and the whole Tisch family to St. John’s Cemetery in Queens and show them a Newport smoker. That the Tisches sell cancer did not mark their money lousy, as it should have, when they gave it to NYU.”

    ************

    I’d never heard any of that. Those are quite striking statements.

    Thanks for coming by the site and for your comments.

    best,
    Cathryn
    WSP Blog.

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