The Folk Riot at Washington Square Park – sometimes referred to as the Beatnik Riot – occurred on Sunday, April 9th, 1961 after the city’s Parks Department suppressed performance at the park, musicians fought back, and a protest ensued on that date. The police were heavy handed and mass arrests took place resulting in widespread media coverage and further mobilization of the community.
Sunday at that time was the big day for “the folkies” to meet up. In fact, the famous 17 minute film by Dan Drasin about the folk riot is simply named “Sunday.”
The day that it was clear the folk singers had won the right to reclaim the space was two weeks later on Sunday, April 23rd.
Four years ago, a 50th anniversary event was planned but it unravelled due to a dispute between the organizer and Izzy Young, a key figure of the day, who was scheduled to come to NYC for the event from Sweden.
Performance Crackdown under the Bloomberg Administration in 2011
Around the time of the 50th Anniversary, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a letter commemorating the importance of the Folk Riot.
Yet shortly thereafter, the Parks Department began instituting a new performance crackdown at Washington Square Park. This was in 2011, suddenly, almost all areas of the park were considered off-limits if they were within certain short distances of a bench or monument, such as, notably, the fountain or Arch.
At the time, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told The New York Times, “If Bob Dylan wanted to come play there tomorrow, he could … although he might have to move away from the fountain.”
Musicians are, of course, allowed to perform at Washington Square Park. However, the volume of some music at the park, viewed as either too loud in decibels or attributed to intense drumming, has been brought up but only in more recent years, following the redesign of the park.
In 2014, a Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting was ambiguously announced as addressing “operational issues” at Washington Square Park. In reality, this meeting was about “noise” – which is how the music was described by the committee; also included as “issues” were skateboarding and “closures” at entrances to the park. Due to the camouflaged agenda item, the public was never properly notified and there was no substantive community input.
This was in sharp contrast to how the Community Board proceeded under Chair Brad Hoylman (now State Assembly Member) in 2011.
In July of 2014, the full Community Board passed a vague resolution directed to the Parks Department. CB2 Board member Carter Booth summed it up well stating, “We as a Board have existing resolutions for the park not to have gates and to also allow musicians to perform. I think we have to be very careful how we request this [so they understand] it is not a line in the sand. It is a very grey area.” He encouraged the Parks Committee to ask the Parks Department for feedback and other approaches and come back to the Board.
The city Parks Department’s Administrator for Washington Square Park at that time, Sarah Neilson, stated shortly afterwards that the PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) officers were being trained to use decibel meters and this would be in place shortly.
The Washington Square Park Folk Riot informs the very essence of the park to this day. Yet park users and community members have to stay aware and remain involved, as people did 57 years ago fighting for their right to perform and express themselves in a public space. There is also the threat looming of privatization of this special park, privatization inevitably makes public space less public. Stay tuned for what happens next as the weather gets warmer and the music resumes in full force.
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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.
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
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.
“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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