A Pivotal Piece of the Park’s History
60 years ago this month, the Washington Square Park “Folk Riot”, a pivotal part of this Greenwich Village park’s history, occurred. That date, April 9, 1961, and what happened on that Sunday, informs much about this iconic park, its history and spirit.
Why It Remains Important
In the sixties, Sunday was the big day for “the folkies” to meet up and perform at Washington Square Park. At the time, applying for a permit was required.
The city Parks Department decided the folkies’ presence at the park was no longer welcome and denied the permit for Sunday, April 9th, 1961.
Folklore Center owner Izzy Young spread the word about the denial and organized a protest. That Sunday, musicians, and their supporters, turned up to do their regular thing and met up with a heavy handed police presence, harassment and arrests.
Dubbed the Folk Riot – sometimes referred to as the Beatnik Riot – it informs much of what we experience and the spirit of the park to this day.
National Public Radio (NPR) on the 50th Anniversary in 2011 — “How the Beatnik Riot Helped Kick Off the ’60’s” :
Today, anybody can play music in Washington Square Park. But back then, city law required that you have a permit. That was really just a formality — until the spring of 1961 when the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Newbold Morris rejected the folkies’ application with no explanation.
But that didn’t stop [David Bennett] Cohen and a few hundred of his new friends from showing up to protest the denial.
“We came anyway,” Cohen says. “We never expected to get beat up, or arrested. I mean, how stupid can you be?”
Filmmaker Dan Drasin also came along, bringing some video equipment he’d borrowed from his bosses, cinema verite pioneers D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles.
“I’d heard about this upcoming demonstration and thought, ‘Well, it would make a nice little subject for a documentary,’” Drasin says.
Fighting For The ‘Right To Sing’
In 1961, Izzy Young was running the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, a few blocks away from the park. At the time, it was the heart of the Greenwich Village folk scene — a hangout for amateurs and professionals, including Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk.
Young was the one who applied for the Washington Square Park permit in the first place, and when it was rejected he helped organize the protest.
The Chiseler added this detail:
The next day, the New York Daily Mirror, the conservative Hearst tabloid, ran a giant war-is-over front page headline, “3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE.” Other local papers followed suit. That week’s Voice scoffed at the Mirror’s “hysterical” coverage, wondering if there were three thousand beatniks in the entire country that Sunday, let alone in Washington Square Park. By May, the outrage caused by the cops’ overreaction forced the city to back down and issue permits, a practice that continues to this day.
Other sources state it was just two weeks later, on Sunday, April 23rd, the folk singers won the right to reclaim the space.
Performance Crackdown under the Bloomberg Administration in 2011
In 2011, a 50th anniversary event was planned but it unraveled due to a dispute between the organizer and Young who was scheduled to come to NYC for the event from Sweden. (Izzy Young died in February of 2019.)
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. 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.”
In 2012, public protest led to a Washington Square Park Speak-Out, organized by Community Board 2. Everyone present at the speak-out spoke against this new rule (save for one person: Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro); soon after, the policy was quietly reversed.
In 2014, this was still being discussed, yet the Parks Department would not commit to their reversal of position in writing.
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 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.
Washington Square Park Folk Riot informs the very essence of the park to this day
Park users and community members have to stay aware and remain involved, as people did 60 years ago fighting for their right to perform and express themselves at this public space. There is also the threat looming of privatization of this special park, privatization inevitably makes public space less public.
A thank you to “the folkies” for their actions on that and all the other Sundays.
See: “Sunday” – Dan Drasin’s famous short film of how events played out that day can be viewed on YouTube
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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:
Top Photo: Unknown
Photo 2, New York Mirror cover via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York
Photos 3 & 4: Cathryn