New York Times Rewrites History of Washington Square Park

Photo here removed by request of New York Times photographer of The “Mounds,” present day (go to link below to see photos)

If you read today’s New York Times story on Washington Square Park’s recently completed six-years-long “renovation,” there is one thing you will come away with: Washington Square Park was a park no one went into for years up until recently with the long-awaited completion of construction. In fact, the park was so scary, according to the Times, that before work began, “tourists avoided the park and people stopped bringing their children.”

Except that is untrue.

Which decade are we referencing when “people stopped bringing their children” to Washington Square Park?

Writer Kia Gregory, from the New York Times “Metro” section, begins the article with chess player Lamont Holloway who first mentions Bobby Fischer playing chess at the park in the 1950s and then jumps to the present. It’s unclear which decade he might have been referring to when he said “tourists avoided the park and people stopped bringing their children.” He said, “You could smell the drugs.” Gregory writes that Holloway has “studied the park” and is quoted as an expert as it also depicts him as waiting for “tourists and fellow hustlers” in the chess plaza.

There was disagreement over the park’s redesign yet agreement that the park needed fixing. But the park was still charming, it was still very much utilized and it was considered safe. It is a false premise that people wouldn’t go into Washington Square Park in 2007 and the years immediately prior to construction and yet that is what this New York Times story is broadcasting. Washington Square Park in 2008 was not Central Park in the 1970s or 1980s – if Central Park was even that then (the prevailing parks narrative makes it so).

In the period just prior to when the park’s construction began, Project for Public Spaces wrote about Washington Square Park:

As a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world. Anyone who visits the park and who looks at how people use it can confirm in just a few minutes that it has nearly all of the key attributes of a great public space.

Was this the period when everyone was avoiding the park and afraid to enter it? Hmmm.

The park pre-construction, people on the Fountain Plaza!
WSP Pre-construction eastern end 2009

Parks’ Bill Castro says community needed to feel it was “their own park again” – as if they didn’t?

There appears the requisite Parks Department quote from Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro, who, as we know, manipulates facts at times.

Castro states, “The intent was to bring back some of the historical character of the park that has been sort of written over … to bring it back to a more welcoming and peaceful park, so the community could feel that it was really their own park again.”

The “community” felt it was “their own park” throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. That is why there was such a battle, years of contentious meetings over the redesign, as the Bloomberg Administration Parks Department swept in — Castro, one of the key orchestrators — with its radical plans bypassing public input.

Is historical character brought “back” by leveling everything that made the park unique and very much loved, bypassing the community, in order to capture some feeling from the 1800s? I think that is what Bill Castro is saying.

People loved the “Teen Plaza” performance area, the vast public space around the Fountain — now dramatically reduced to the point where large protests can no longer be held at the park – they loved the trees in the park, the picnic tables, the warmth of the design, the fact that the community had been very much involved in the 1970 design process. And they liked that the fountain was not “aligned” with the Arch.

If Bill Castro truly wanted to keep the “historical character” of Washington Square Park, he might have looked no further than the fact that the fountain was in its previous location for 137 years, “unaligned” with the Arch at Fifth Avenue, it was located in the center of the park itself. Yet, this historical fact – the thing people most objected to in the plans and wanted left alone – was glossed over. The Landmarks Preservation Commission was pressured by Bloomberg Admin officials to vote in favor. And in some mistaken idea of “symmetry,” the fountain was moved 22 feet east. (It also accommodated Fifth Avenue neighbors to designer George Vellonakis who wanted to view the Fountain through “the Arch view corridor” thinking it might help their real estate values.)

Perhaps the largest thing that was lost was the community being swept out of the way by an arrogant Parks Department and former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and kept out of the discussion for their park.

— Photo here removed of Parks Department gardener, present day, by request of New York Times photographer

Tulip Patch Washington Square in 2009

Does New York Times not reference previous articles by its reporters?

Alas, the Parks Department (which has still been operating under Bloomberg era tactics as the new Parks Commissioner has not yet begun) needed to paint the picture of a park that no one would go in – like, again, Central Park in the 1980s, 70s (which was it?), and they were handed a reporter who likely hadn’t been in the park since she was a reporter in Philadelphia until 2012. They set her down that path and that is the story she wrote. You would hope that another Times’ Metro reporter would have given her some background or that she would have referred to the large piece Graham Bowley wrote, “The Battle for Washington Square,” for the Times in 2008 (that piece was disappointing as well but Bowley spent weeks, maybe months, researching it and it would have given context).

When contacted after the piece first appeared online last night, I asked Ms. Gregory about the fact that she painted a picture of a park no one went into and I told her that wasn’t true. Gregory responded repeatedly that the article doesn’t say that. Yet it does. She starts the article out with a chess player who jumps from Bobby Fischer in the ’50s to right before the redesign stating the park was a place no one would go, she quotes a woman from the dog run saying “the park was a dump” and she ends with Holloway stating, “I  have some hope now that it won’t go back to the way it was.”

When pressed further, Gregory said people told her that they wouldn’t go in the park. But what people ? Why is this article so skewed? The people at the chess tables or the dog run may be subsets in the park and not know the full story of the park’s “fight” – they probably are more in tune to their respective areas – but even so, as Jonathan Greenberg, quoted in the article, asked me, “She couldn’t find one person who knew the park before the construction started?”

“Mounds” are the biggest hit – and the Parks Department fought them every step of the way

The article leads with a picture of a child playing on the Mounds and references how much people love them. Even Adrian Benepe has been tweeting about them! (Benepe who recently wrote in to this blog, snarky as ever.) They are clearly a big hit. It’s interesting because they were fought every step of the way by Bloomberg’s Parks Department – they truly are unique and only because they were retained from the previous 1970s design (due to the efforts of former City Council member Alan Gerson and dedicated Mounds advocates).

NYU “contributed funds” – Oh, you mean that $1 Million that only half was Spent towards the Renovation?

The article states, “New York University, which contributed funds to the renovation, is the park’s immediate neighbor.” Reading this made me realize how outrageous it is that the Parks Department recently said that only half of NYU’s initial commitment of $1 Million was utilized and now there is $500,000 that “wasn’t spent.” How can that even be true? I suppose writing about this park and other parks for so many years now, I know that you have to vet everything this city agency says. (I’m not saying she should have jumped into that issue – tho’ I wonder if they gave her a figure on NYU’s funds – just an example.)

The Parks Department told the writer that the cost of the park’s three phases of construction is $30.6 million (remember the plans were budgeted and approved for $16 million at the onset) but that figure can’t be right. In October 2013, the press office gave me a figure of $30.4 million. It has to have grown in cost by then.

Redesign was Classic Bloomberg Era Tactics Allowed to Seep into a Times Story that Rewrites History of this Important Public Space

To really understand Washington Square Park in the 2000s, one would need to dig a bit, uh, deeper, but apparently, to the great delight of the Parks Department p.r. department and Mike Bloomberg’s Parks Department officials that remain at the city agency, this is the story we are now getting from The New York Times. A story very much skewed that neglects the full story, changes facts, and acts as a puff piece for the Bloomberg era.

Project for Public Spaces also wrote that Washington Square Park was “one of the best-loved destinations in New York City.” Oh, was that around the time the space was too scary to walk into ? Well, according to this New York Times story, yes. This is how you alter history.

* * *

2005, Project for Public Spaces, What Makes a Great Public Space?

“Washington Square Park is one of the best known and best-loved destinations in New York City. And as a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world. Anyone who visits the park and who looks at how people use it can confirm in just a few minutes that it has nearly all of the key attributes of a great public space. … Its success can also be measured by other indicators such as the amount of affection that is being displayed, its overall comfort and feeling of being safe, the level of stewardship, and the way that people engage in different activities at very close range and interact with each other easily.”

Photos: 1st and 4th Photos: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times Removed at request of photographer
Photos: 3rd, 5th, 6th: Cathryn Swan
Photo #2: unknown source

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New York Times, Blooms Return to Washington Square Park After Years of Renovation:

By KIA GREGORY
MAY 9, 2014

The park had changed drastically from the days in the 1950s when Bobby Fischer used to come to play, Lamont Holloway said as he sat in gold-framed sunglasses at a chessboard and waited for a tourist or fellow hustler in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village

As years went by, tourists avoided the park and people stopped bringing children, he said, because of the packets, needles and crack pipes that marred what little grass grew in the hard-packed, dusty ground.

“You could smell the drugs,” said Mr. Holloway, 46, who recalled the grim days of the park, which he has studied. A worn copy of a book by Svetozar Gligoric on Fischer’s battle with the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky lay open at his right; a pack of cigarettes at his left. He occasionally sipped on a straw from a can in a brown paper bag.

For more than six years, New York City has been renovating the park, section by section. In the chess area, the asphalt mounds and wooden benches have been replaced with black-and-white tabletops, chairs, greenery and flowers.

Sunbathers were splayed on the lawn at Washington Square Park during lunchtime on a warm day. The park recently underwent a $30.6 million renovation that included a playground, new bathrooms and new landscaping. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The restoration of the park involved a layering of historical eras, according to the city’s parks department. “The intent was to bring back some of the historical character of the park that had been sort of written over,” said William Castro, the Manhattan parks commissioner, “to bring it back to a more welcoming and peaceful park, so the community could feel that it was really their own park again.”

The 9.75-acre plot, once farmland for freed slaves and a communal graveyard for victims of yellow fever, was frequented by 19th- and 20th-century cultural figures like Henry James, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Hopper, and intertwined with the folk-music scene; Bob Dylan played there. New York University, which contributed funds to the renovation, is the park’s immediate neighbor

Through the renovation, the park’s fountain was restored and moved 22 feet to become a focal point in the central plaza. The plaza was raised to evoke a piazza, and retaining walls were reconfigured into seats and alcoves.

The $30.6 million renovation, mostly through public money, began in 2007 amid protests, candlelight vigils and heated community board meetings. Opponents felt some changes, like trimming the fountain plaza and installing a 45-foot jet spray, violated the park’s character.

Some have come around, Mr. Castro said, as the renovation has taken shape.

Jonathan Greenberg, who founded the Open Washington Square Park Coalition, was one of the loudest critics of the plan and became a plaintiff in lawsuits to halt the renovation.

“Are the lights better? Yes,” Mr. Greenberg, 55, said of the changes. “Is the paving more beautiful? Yes. Did we want new bathrooms, because the other ones were third world? Yes. Those things are all great.”

But Mr. Greenberg, who sang in the park for more than 30 years, and whose two children played there, said the redesigned plaza clamped down on the impromptu music sessions, protests and hanging out that were entwined with the park’s history.

The work took place in three phases, and the final phase was finished this spring. It included a large dog run and a new stone-columned building with public restrooms and office space for park maintenance, gardening and security staff.

The parks department is planning a ribbon-cutting in June.

“Like anything that you need to grow, you need that influx of new people,” Mr. Holloway said.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a line of baby strollers sat behind Mr. Holloway. Toddlers played on the mounds of fake grass and the black ropes of the jungle gyms of the new mini-playground while parents and nannies watched. Passers-by with cameras sauntered along leafy, canopied paths. Sunbathers were splayed on the lawn. Along the benches, students read from books on their laps. Some napped, while others dug forks into food containers.

On the west side of the park, a jazz quartet jammed. Before long, the trumpet player, a short man wearing a porkpie hat and white-framed sunglasses, unleashed a solo while heads bobbed and toes tapped.

“The west side of the park has the best jazz,” said Kevin Chen, 18, an N.Y.U. freshman from San Francisco who is studying economics. He often comes to hear this particular band, a band with no name. “They play a lot of good music,” Mr. Chen said. “They play a lot of bossa nova.”

Lauren Park said her 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, chanted “rope time” when she was ready to come to the park. “It’s awesome,” Ms. Park said of the renovation, cradling Sophie on her hip. “It really creates a great place where they can run and roll.”

Across the lawn, along the park periphery, dogs ran, barked and kicked up dust in the large dog run, which also has a fountain. “It was a dump,” Andrea Smith, a dog trainer, said of the old park while she sat by the gate with two leashed clients.

There are pétanque courts, detailed fencing and lampposts, expanded lawns and repaved paths. There are new shade trees, evergreens, flowering shrubs and perennials. The parks department plans to restore the sidewalks around the park. Construction is expected to begin in the winter.

For all that is new, old staples remain: the jazz bands, the gray-bearded man draped in pigeons and the chess players.

By a monument to the metallurgist Alexander Holley, a rumpled man lay with a towel over his face, mumbling as if he were having a bad dream. Nearby, students listened to a lecture.

Mr. Holloway, who is married and has a grown daughter, has been playing in the park for more than 20 years.

“I have some hope now,” he said, “that it won’t go back to the way it was.

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6 thoughts on “New York Times Rewrites History of Washington Square Park”

  1. It seems like the Times wanted a story that was unreservedly pro-renovation and that’s what they got. A reporter who had more familiarity with the park’s history or who tried to find a broader context would have been superfluous to this goal.

    Congratulations on receiving snark from Mr. Benepe! Irritating the officials and public figures you write about is a sign you’re doing good work as an investigative reporter. The more snippy and unprofessional they sound, the clearer it is you’re doing a job that needs doing.

  2. Cathryn,

    Once again, you are 100% correct. I hadn’t seen the NY Times article until seeing your post, and I was appalled at how plain wrong it is. Just as the wound inflicted by the park redesign project on those of us who live near the park and see it every day has started to heal, this article throws salt on it. As a visitor to the Village since the 1960’s and a resident since 1983, and especially as someone who has lived immediately adjacent to the park since 1991, I know first hand that the premise of the article is total nonsense. There were just as many people in the park before the renovation as there are after, including families and kids. No one was afraid of it any more than they would be afraid of it now, or wary of any other urban park. My daughter, who is now 20, literally grew up going to the playgrounds in the park. The only thing that kept people from going was the endless renovation which closed off large sections for years at a time. Yes, the park needed renovation, but no, it did not need the redesign. I am convinced that the redesign happened mainly because it served the egos of Benepe, Vellonakis, and especially Bloomberg (who did absolutely nothing for the Village area during his 8 year term and his stolen extra 4 years, and with the park project did us a disservice).

    One of the biggest jokes in the article, to me, is where it says “there are new shade trees”. Does the reporter even know how many large old trees were ripped out in order to allow the idiotic scheme to move and elevate the fountain plaza? And that all the new trees that have been planted in the fountain area that have failed to take root and possibly never will, due to the utter failure to consider trees and drainage when designing a park (what a concept!), leaving visitors to roast in the sun in the summer?

    This Times reporter really has egg on her face. The only way for her to restore any credibility she might have would be to expose those who obviously led her down the garden path.

    Seth

    P.S. If it is true that Vellonakis’ Fifth Avenue friends (I live there but don’t count me as one of them) wanted to see the fountain through the arch, the joke is on them, since NYU’s Kimmel Center has pretty much ruined that view, without providing any amenity to the community.

  3. Well said, Cathryn. Thank you for being the spokesperson for the Washington Square Park community. Your work is very important.

    It strikes me as a sad commentary on our media, and its role, that someone like you, Cathryn, who is so well informed and makes such an effort to understand the underlying issues, is paid nothing for an important blog with a limited readership, while a NY Times Reporter makes a living wage and an enormous readership but has no understanding of the facts which she reports.

    All she would have needed to do was to call the sixth Precinct and get crime states year to year. She would have seen that Wash Sq Park was one of the safest parks on the city, as we all know, and that parents like me brought my small children to overcrowded playgrounds.

    One thing I notice that is never mentioned is that the central plaza was diminished in size by 28%. Somehow with all the space committed to what has changed, the largest programmatic change of all was not news that the Times found “fit to print.”

  4. Kia Gregory’s article is hilarious.

    Wow, she found someone — Lamont Holloway — who played chess against Bobby Fischer! Great lead, this looks really interesting. I read on, wondering what Lamont or Bobby learned from each other, how their games turned out and evolved. Did Lamont win any of their games?

    It is only in the 3rd paragraph that we learn obliquely that Holloway wasn’t even born when Bobby’d hang out in the Park and was no doubt afraid to walk there alone amidst all the drug paraphernalia and muggings. (Kia Gregory, though, leaves you to do the arithmetic for yourself, as she leaps away from that minor credulous detail.) In fact, Holloway was only 4 years old when Bobby played Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in that most memorable contest followed every day by the eyes of the world, amidst the war on Vietnam.

    But by then, we’re already sucked in by the lie that churns the rest of the story. Gregory’s “source” turns out to have been pontificating about the 50s, 60s and 70s, but really only started hanging out in the Park in the 80s. Well, maybe she’d research the influence of Washington Square Park on Bobby’s later near-fascist views. After all, she’s painting such a ridiculous dystopian description of Washington Square Park with murderers and rapists running rampant that it’s likely to set anyone into what would become Fischer’s neo-fascist dementia, no?

    Well, no.

    Never happened.

    Gregory doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Clearly, she doesn’t have a clue.

    And I’d bet NYU’s dollars to the wonderful trees that were destroyed in the Park’s “reconstruction” (that Gregory doesn’t bother to mention) that most of that twistory was Kia’s, not poor Lamont Holloway’s, who was probably the first typical Washington Square Park character that Kia came across during her first year in New York, from her schooling in Pennsylvania.

    I hate to compare the two (below) because the magnitude and impact of the lying is so vastly different, but the methodology is the same: Is Kia Gregory striving to become the new Judith Miller of the New York Times?

    Mitchel Cohen
    Brooklyn Greens/Green Party

  5. You are infringing on my copyright by using my photographs and not compensating me. You can criticize the article all you like but please hire your own photographers to illustrate your point. Please remove them. Thanks.

  6. Hi Kirsten, I have many many photos, don’t worry. I was trying to illustrate the Times’s perspective. Thanks for writing. Your photos have been removed.

    best of luck,

    Cathryn
    ed., Washington Sq Park Blog

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