54 Years Since Washington Square Park Officially Closed to Traffic

Last Car Through Washington Square

This photo captures the community and park goers’ happy victory with stopping cars from traveling through Washington Square Park in 1958 tho’ it was actually April of 1959 when “the square” was closed to all but emergency traffic.

The New York Preservation Archive Project tracks here the long history of the proposal which took different forms at varying times to expand traffic around and/or through the park, in some versions altering the park dramatically (even proposing to remove the fountain!) and the fight to stop it:

Washington Square Park and Traffic 1930’s

– Prior to World War II, newly appointed Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, planned to implement a redesign of Washington Square Park. The central issue addressed in Moses’ plan was the problem of traffic.

– 1935 – Moses proposed to reroute traffic from the park onto a one-way circular drive around it. The realistic implication of his plan was that the streets surrounding the park would need to be widened, and thus would require pedestrians to cross a wide stream of traffic to access the park.

Robert Moses’ plan, which was commonly referred to as “The Bathmat Plan,” exacerbated the tension between the Greenwich Village community and the Parks Department, because he did not attempt to consult the local population2.

– As part of his plan, Moses also proposed a formal landscape treatment, a change requiring the removal a number of the park’s old trees3.

– 1939 – Moses revisited the Washington Square Plan and informed the local opposition that if his plan was not approved, then Washington Square would fall to the bottom of the Parks Department’s priority list. The Washington Square Association ended up approving Moses’ proposal4.

– 1939 – At this point, the Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square, led by consulting engineer and Village resident Pierce Trowbridge Wetter, formed to take up the battle against Moses’ redesign plan. Henry H. Curran (a magistrate) and architect Robert Weinberg, worked with Wetter on this effort.

– Several civic organizations joined the 1939 battle against Robert Moses’ redesign plan. The Municipal Art Society, Fine Arts Federation, New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the New York Society of Landscape Architects, City Club, and Citizens Union all participated in this effort5.

– 1940 – The press reported that Moses’ plan had been “postponed indefinitely” 6.

Post-War 1940’s

In the 1940’s, Villagers once again engaged in a skirmish with Robert Moses regarding traffic in Washington Square Park.

– 1947 – Moses proposed the “Rogers Plan.” In the “Rogers Plan,” Moses expressed his intention to re-route traffic around the park. The plan also called for the removal of the park’s fountain for the addition of a “turn-out” area in the central section of the park that would contain eight to ten buses at a time7.

1950’s

– 1952 – Robert Moses announced a new redesign plan. This time, he intended to construct two roads, each thirty-eight feet wide, that would flank the Washington Square Arch and run through the park. He also proposed to construct new playgrounds, south of the Arch, between the two roads.

Greenwich Village residents (and “park mothers”) Shirley Hayes and Edith Lyons organized the Washington Square Park Committee to oppose Moses’ plan. Hayes shifted the debate over road width to one successfully questioning the need for any road at all 8.

– The Washington Square Park Committee mobilized the opposition, created a petition, and gathered 4,000 signatures.

– The Board of Estimate shelved Moses’ proposal9.

Robert Moses was determined, however, to construct a major roadway through the park, and the battle waged on. Moses reasoned that a roadway would increase the park’s “functionality” by connecting Washington Square North and Washington Square South. He was also motivated by his intention to create a Fifth Avenue South address for the buildings to be constructed in the redevelopment area south of Washington Square in order to increase real estate values. Moses may also have been driven to construct a roadway through the Park, in order to advance his plans to build a lower Manhattan Expressway10.

– 1958 – Ray Rubinow, a foundation consultant, along with other notable individuals such as Jane Jacobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and Lewis Mumford, formed The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic (JEC)11.

– JEC launched a petition campaign, threw special events (such as a park rally in May 1958) and obtained support from politico Carmine de Sapio12.

October 23 1958 – The Board of Estimate passed a resolution to authorize a temporary closing of the Park to traffic.

April 1959 – The Board of Estimate approved a policy statement for Washington Square Park, stating that the park was closed to all but emergency vehicles.

– 1963 – The Board of Estimate completed the legal process to forever clear the park from traffic 13.

(Links to all footnotes here.)

That was a long battle! Victory was definitely worth celebrating. Robert Moses, by the way, thought it would be a grand failure closing off traffic through the park and that the tide would eventually swing his way – this did not happen. The photo above comes via the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation which, for their oral history archives, interviewed Edith Lyons; she recorded her memories as a leader of the Committee to Close Washington Square Park to traffic. From GVSHP:

Edith Lyons was just one of those early preservationists. She was a co-founder and leader of the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic. This explicitly named group successfully fought a Robert Moses-led plan to create an expressway through the park. The interview explores the committee’s tactics, both grassroots and political, as well as their work on behalf of the park following their victory. The interview also contains very personal stories of her time leading the committee, including one about the Brooklyn Borough President supplying the Committee with lunch from a local delicatessen during a Board of Estimate hearing and one that describes how she secured fashion models to collect petition signatures in the park.Ms. Lyon’s amazing work for Washington Square Park, along with her keen sense of humor, is preserved in this record. She died just five years after this interview was conducted.

You can find this oral interview, as well as others, on the GVSHP website.

You have to love that – securing fashion models to collect petitions for signatures! Much to be learned from the creative tactics of the past.

The New York Preservation Archive Project declares on their site:

Current Status:

Washington Square continues to be a hotbed of preservation activity and controversy.

It’s never boring.

Photo: Last car through Washington Square Park, 1958. Tankel Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

3 thoughts on “54 Years Since Washington Square Park Officially Closed to Traffic

  1. Thanks J. Rouss for your comment. Re: GVSHP, they have a lot of good information and have cataloged A LOT of the history of the Village well… There is so much preservation work to be done. … Every org. has its pros and cons, I suppose.

    Thanks for reading!
    best,
    Cathryn.

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