Jonathan Greenberg is the founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and lived near Washington Square Park for more than 30 years. He has fought tirelessly to preserve the public space and unique aspects of Washington Square Park despite the obstacles and obfuscations put in play by the Bloomberg Administration and New York City Parks Department. He shared this letter with me and it is today’s guest entry.
Guest Entry: Jonathan Greenberg
Letter to the New York Times
To the Editor:
Your recent front page City section coverage of the “Battle of Washington Square” (November 23, 2008) set reality on its head by distorting and misreporting the truth about why Greenwich Village community activists like me are angry about the radical redesign of Washington Square Park.
Despite the article’s 2,300 word length and the fact that he has confirmed knowledge of every fact in this letter, Times reporter Graham Bowley decided to ignore the most relevant information that the “Paper of Record” ought to have provided readers with. In portraying community activists like myself as “bitterly angry” and full of “fury,” as we tried to “write our desires” on a park that we treat as our “personal fiefs,” while reporting, unchallenged, Parks Department claims that the “transformation of Washington Square Park has been one of the most open in the agency’s history,” the Times leaves readers with the insulting impression that the lawsuits and protests over the park’s redesign were much ado about nothing, except the egos of those involved.
For instance, the Times reports that in October, 2005, Community Board (CB) 2 “rejected” a compromise that would have limited the reduction in the park plaza’s size. Incredibly, the article fails to note that neither the Board, nor the public, were ever provided with the plans for the park redesign, nor were they told the truth about the reduction in the size of the park’s plaza. This was documented both in a judge’s ruling in favor of our first lawsuit, as well as in a web video which my group created and posted. In May, 2007, the same Community Board voted, 40 to 5, to rescind its earlier approval of the plan, because it had been provided with inadequate and incorrect information.
How information about this historically unprecedented vote failed to make it into this Times article reporting the Board’s earlier, ill-informed vote astounds me, and on behalf of our community, I request that the Times City section run a correction regarding this distortion.
Also missing from the article was the core reason why the redesign is so disturbing to thousands of us: the park’s central plan, which has served for decades as the most uniquely successful free speech and public gathering and musical performance space in the United States, is being transformed against the will of an overwhelming number of park users and park experts. At the core of this battle has been the issue of whether Washington Square Park needed a repair, (we all agree it did) or a redesign. Before this plan was imperiously disclosed to the public, I requested, in an Op Ed in the Villager newspaper, that the Parks Department survey the public on what needed changing, and how their intended design changes would impact the park’s usage. When Parks refused, my group surveyed more than 500 park users, and found that 98% preferred a repair to a redesign.
Soon after, the prestigious Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was hired by the Washington Square Park Council, a group that initially supported a redesign, to survey and study the park and its users. The Villager’s headline reporting the results read, “Study finds people like Wash. Sq. the way it is.” PPS’s Senior Vice President told the Villager, “People basically just love this park to death…They like the different levels and they like the configuration… The fountain really functions as a social place. There’s really nothing like it in the United States… I would be very, very hesitant to change that, because of how well it functions.”
This objective, essential study went unreported by the Times. Indeed, while we fought for the park’s renowned public usage as a gathering space, it was the private fiefdom of an imperious Parks Department Commissioner (Adrian Benepe) which forced a redesign of the park’s central plaza through, insisting that the sunken plaza be brought to street level grade, reduced in size by 25% and made inhospitable to impromptu sing-alongs and performances that the park is famous for. By converting the plaza’s famous fountain to an ornamental fountain with a 40 foot spray that will no longer be accessible to performers or sunbathers except when it is turned off, probably by permit, the Parks Commissioner has unilaterally changed the most important public tradition of Washington Square Park as the town square of our great melting pot of a city.
Then there is the matter of renaming the century old fountain “Tisch Fountain.” While the Times reports that this concerned residents, it neglects to mention that a secret contract was signed between the Parks Department and the Tisch foundation in January, 2005 for the renaming, and that this agreement was withheld from the Community Board, City Council, and Landmarks hearings until after they had voted for the plan, and only revealed after an activist’s Freedom of Information Act request uncovered it.
Instead of reporting such facts, the Times repeats two demonstrably false claims by the Parks Department that this was the most “open process” in 30 years, while disparaging a “small core” of shill protesters for failing to accept change. Like many New Yorkers, I feel that our elected representatives and our institutions failed our community in preserving the great public square that Washington Square Park had become. As a result of this misleading article, our city’s greatest newspaper, sadly, joins these ranks.
I look forward to reading your correction and apology.
Jonathan Greenberg, founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition, lived near the park for more than 30 years. A journalist and new media executive, he holds a master’s law degree from Yale Law School.
*** Photo: Richard