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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