Highlights from Gothamist Article — Mission Creep: Emails Show how Wealthy Donors Exerted Influence Over Washington Square Park

Washington Sq Park conservancy Founders at C.B. 2 meeting June 2013
from left to right: Justine Leguizamo, Veronica Bulgari, Gwen Evans, Betsey Ely

Last week, Gothamist ran an explosive piece, Mission Creep: Emails Show how Wealthy Donors Exerted Influence Over Washington Square Park outlining exactly that. Washington Square Park Blog is appreciative of the information revealed in that article. It bounces off of – and highlights – this site’s nine years of investigative work about Washington Square Park Conservancy, including the dodgy misinformation and omissions during the private entity’s controversial beginnings dating back to local Community Board 2’s “public hearing” around its formation and over the years since.

*** Look for a new article at WSP Blog either today or tomorrow soon exploring further and beyond what Gothamist exposed. (Check back!)

Some highlights from Gothamist’s “Mission Creep” Article on Wealthy Donor Influence at Washington Square Park:

[Note: Headings are WSP Blog wording, items italicized are directly from the article. Underlining is for emphasis by this site.]

Chris Hughes, Facebook co-founder, aims to solve “the crisis” at Washington Square Park

Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook and former publisher of the New Republic, wanted to get involved in solving “the crisis” at Washington Square Park.

In an email to his Greenwich Village neighbors last March, Hughes detailed a list of illegal activity he’d recently encountered: public drinking and fighting, a pedestrian plaza “overtaken” by vendors, skateboarders who “circle children and the elderly around the arch.”

“I’m sure I’m like a lot of other people who want to be organized by a group of people to apply political and social pressure (or money) to change these things,” he concluded, according to emails obtained by Gothamist. “What’s the plan?”

Hughes, who recently sold his townhouse in the neighborhood for $19.5 million, was invited shortly after that exchange to join the board of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, a small nonprofit that raises money for the park.

His position in the conservancy gave him a direct line to Parks Department officials, who agreed to meet with him to discuss the coming crackdown on nuisance behavior, according to a trove of emails between city employees and conservancy members acquired by Gothamist through a public records request.

“Well-funded park enthusiasts” go beyond self-proclaimed “horticultural” mission

The correspondence shows how a group of well-funded park enthusiasts went far beyond its self-proclaimed “horticultural” mission to clamp down on disorder in a park that has long been a mecca for artists, students and radicals — and which had taken on new resonance for a generation seeking alternatives to nightlife during the pandemic.

In the emails, exchanged between January 2020 and December 2021, members of the conservancy group called for officials to eliminate certain events, facilitate private programming in public areas, and chase away “hooligans” in the park.

“It’s exactly what people feared: a handful of affluent individuals using their private money to dictate what goes on in a public park,” said Cathryn Swan, whose Washington Square Park Blog tracked the conservancy’s controversial beginnings nearly a decade ago. “This community was very vocal that they didn’t want that.”

Difference between Washington Square Park Conservancy and Other Conservancies in the city

Unlike conservancies that oversee stalls at Madison Square Park or Bryant Park, the Washington Square Park Conservancy does not have a licensing agreement with the city. When the group sought community board approval in 2013, the Parks Department assured concerned residents the group would “not have a role in policy, planning or event creation.

Rather, the founders – a group that included John Leguizamo’s wife, Justine, and the Italian jewelry heiress Veronica Bulgari – said they would be focused on recruiting volunteers for park maintenance, such as “planting bulbs, weeding the beds, mostly horticulture.”

But that role appeared to evolve alongside growing tensions in the park during the pandemic. Cut off from traditional nightlife, young people from across the five boroughs flocked to Washington Square Park, spurring complaints of increased noise and crime from local residents.

“Hooligans” !

Cut off from traditional nightlife, young people from across the five boroughs flocked to Washington Square Park, spurring complaints of increased noise and crime from local residents.

“We are on the case,” Bill Castro, the Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner, wrote to a conservancy member in September 2020 who had fled Manhattan for Maine but was worried about reports of parties and trash in the park.

“As I like to quote William Faulkner: ‘We will not only endure, we will prevail,” Castro wrote.

‘Hooligans’ and Buskers

On the morning of June 6th, after police in riot gear clashed with park-goers over their enforcement of a new 10 p.m. curfew, Castro asked the conservancy’s chairperson Betsey Ely to call him for a “briefing” on the situation. “Hooligans,” she wrote back. “I saw lots of videos. Will call soon.”

In another email sent a week later, Ely requested that Parks Enforcement Patrol officers “stop amplified music by the fountain.” Will Morrison, the park administrator, wrote back three minutes later: “Yes I just asked them to head over.”

Morrison, who is tasked with overseeing parks operations, also consulted with the private group about a decision to barricade a corner of the park long associated with homelessness and drug use, reserving it instead for “Conservancy-led kids programming.”

“Kudos to one and all,” Ely replied. “Now next steps, how do we maintain it?”

A spokesperson for the conservancy declined requests to interview Ely, Hughes and other board members. Attempts to reach Hughes separately were unsuccessful. In a statement, the group’s Deputy Director Sheryl Woodruff said the conservancy was focused on supporting “landscapes, maintenance, and community” in the park.

Conservancy and Parks Department Deny Any ‘Overstepping’

In 2021, the group raised $336,000 toward that effort, providing grants to the city that funded two gardeners, two maintenance workers, and a playground associate. The conservancy is currently hiring its own “program manager” to plan events aimed at kids and senior citizens. [WSP Blog Note: This is yet another untruth and misrepresentation.]

“Within our community area, we offer a wide range of free public programming open to all, with activities for kids and adults of all ages from fitness to art, working to deliver something for everyone that spends time in Washington Square Park,” Woodruff said.

No special treatment

Crystal Howard, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, denied that members of the conservancy had overstepped the ban on “policy, planning or event creation.” She said the group’s events went through the same permitting process as any other organization.

“There is nothing to the assertion that the conservancy dictates parks policy or the management of the park in any way — that is solely the responsibility of the agency commissioner and those who represent the agency on their behalf,” Howard said.

Still, parks officials have repeatedly shown an eagerness to respond to requests of the conservancy, ranging from minor issues of lighting on the arch to larger questions of what type of activities and businesses should be permitted in the park.

In March of 2013, months before the group was officially recognized by the Parks Department, its founders suggested that two hot dog carts be relocated from their spot by the arch, according to memos obtained by Swan. The Parks Department fulfilled the request, even as other vendors selling ice cream sandwiches and gelato were permitted to stay.

And: Derrick Demaria, a member of the Washington Square Park Mutual Aid Group, was quoted saying, “During lockdown, the park was a hotbed of ideas, of people coming together outside to share music and art. Clearly they see this is a moment of opportunity to make the park something it hasn’t been: sterile and inaccessible, like a mall.”


Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

About this “murky” private entity encroaching on this public space, visit this page: Private Conservancy Watch

In the event the Gothamist article page some day gets taken down, the full text of the article is at this link.

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