Then and Now: Washington Square Park

A Sketch of Washington Square Park in the 1880s

Although Washington Square Park, named after the United States’ first president, is a beautiful and relaxing escape for many people today, it started off as a six and a half acre common burial ground in 1787 and remained as such until 1826.  In 1827, The Seventh New York Militia expanded the field by nearly eight acres and turned it into a “drill field,” where  “the militia’s heavy artillery sometimes unearthed crushed coffins and skulls” (Moke).  Despite these conditions, wealthy and powerful families, also known as “Knickerbockers,” moved from diseased and crowded downtown Manhattan to the relatively unpopulated Washington Square Park area.  The Knickerbockers built extravagant mansions, also known as Greek Revival mansions around the square (  Today, the mansions on the south side are no longer standing, but the ones on the north side are still there.

"An Italian-American cop chatting with a group of Italian-Americans in Washington Square Park" Feb. 1943 Photograph by Marjory Collins

The increasing popularity of the square and formation of the Department of PublicParks in 1870 led M.A. Kellogg, Engineer-in-Chief, and I.A. Pilat, Chief Landscape Gardener, to renovate and officially turn the field into a park (  The marble Washington Square Arch, which replaced a wooden arch, was built and completed in 1890-1892 to celebrate George Washington’s 100th anniversary of his inauguration.  American architect Stanford White led the project, which was funded by wealthy residents who lived around the area.

New York, New York. Washington Square arch
Photo Taken by Edwin Rosskam
1941 Dec.

Washington Square Arch
Photo Taken by Michelle Guo
2012 April

Washington Square Park’s reputation shifted from being a park surrounded by and visited by wealthy individuals to a bohemian public park filled with artists, entertainers, and students during the Great Depression.  The park’s first art fair was held in 1932 to help struggling artists have a source of income in the sinking economy; artists brought their artwork to sell and entertainers showcased their talents to earn tips.  As nice as this sounds, artists were lucky if they walked away with more than a couple dollars.  Even well-known and successful novelists and poets were not immune to the damaging effects of the Great Depression on the arts.  Macy Halford, a writer for The New Yorker, posted an article about the talented, struggling artists in Washington Square Park during the Great Depression:

Maxwell Bodenheim, a best-selling novelist who lost everything in the crash of 1929, was forced to peddle poems for twenty-five cents apiece in Washington Square Park… he wrote in 1934: ‘There’s something wrong with this world all right, but I can’t put my finger on it… Something must be wrong when a fellow can’t get a decent wage, can’t tell when he’s going to be fired, can’t look forward to any promise of happiness.  Something is rotten somewhere.’

Depression in Washington Square Park
Sketch by Eugenia Hughes

The Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village also relied on Washington Square Park for sales.  Francis Lambert McCrudden founded the group in May 1933 after he retired from his job as a telephone worker.   The majority of his poems dealt with “the value of hard work despite the ruined economy” (Boog).  According to The New York Historical Society, the park was an essential element to the groups’ success:

The group held yearly exhibitions off Washington Square Park, in which members’ poetry was tacked to a fence at Thompson Street and Washington Square South for public display and potential sale. Poems generally sold at prices ranging from a quarter up to a dollar, the latter for particularly fine work.

At the end of 1934, legendary architect and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses announced that he had plans to “dress Washington Square Park in some new clothes” (The Villager).   Although Moses stated his vision was to “renew and replenish the pride which was in Village hearts” for the “grand old open space,” Greenwich Village residents protested against the redesigning of the park.  In the March 14, 1935 issue of The Villager, Moses’ full landscape renovation plan was posted on the front page.  He wanted to wipe out all traces of the 1870 park design and instead create a ceremonial garden theme.  Some of the greatest changes included taking away the park’s fountain and replacing it with a pool that would align perfectly with the marble arch as seen from Fifth Avenue.   However, because the residents around the park objected to the new landscape plan and complained relentlessly, the 1870 park design remained untouched (The Villager).

Nearly three decades later, Washington Square Park was still a popular destination for musicians to showcase their talents, whether it was for much-needed tips, or just to entertain the public.  However, in 1961, newly appointed Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris announced that musicians would no longer be permitted to sing or play music in the park because he wanted to “protect the Washington Square grass” (Time).  At first, the musicians protested peacefully by marching around the park and carrying signs that said “We Want to Continue As We Have in the Past.” However, the protest turned violent when an 18-year-old zitherist played the intro chords to “We Shall Not Be Moved” and was arrested and forced into a police van.  The other musicians were outraged and a small fight broke out between the protestors and the police. According to policemen at the scene, one folk singer “banjoed a lawman on the ankle” and then ran to a nearby church to repent (Time). Parks Commissioner Morris attempted to negotiate with the folk singers by inviting them to play in the East River Park.  However, two days later, Morris announced that because Greenwich Village residents enjoyed the presence of folk singers in Washington Square Park, the musicians were allowed to stay.

In 1986, Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern closed Washington Square Park for three days to clean and repair the park in an attempt to “rid the park of drug dealers” (The New York Times).  Once the park reopened to the public, Parks Commissioner Stern announced some changes; the park would now be closed from midnight to 7:00AM everyday and visitors were no longer permitted to bring radios or glass containers inside the park.  Greenwich Village residents supported this renovation of Washington Square Park and the new regulations were implemented without any trouble.

In 2005, a renovation plan similar to Robert Moses’ 1934 renovation plan was proposed by the Parks Department.  According to an article published in The New York Times, the Parks Department wanted to move the fountain so that it would be aligned to the Washington Square Arch, flatten out the playground and asphalt, and install a four-foot-high granite and iron fence around the park that would lock at night.  Once again, Greenwich Village residents were in uproar about this new design; residents believed the monetary and environmental costs were too great and advocated that Washington Square Park “did not need a facelift” (Williams).  However, in 2007 the Manhattan Supreme Court approved the renovation plans (Sullivan).  Washington Square Park is still being renovated today.  Phase I of the renovation was completed around May 2011 and Phase II is currently taking place.  To follow up on the progress of the renovation at the park, check out this website:

Today, Washington Square Park is still a bohemian and family-friendly hangout area located in Greenwich Village.  The park is open year-round and accessible by the A, B, C, D, E, F, or V train to West 4th St/Washington Square (  Its 9.74 acres are filled with students, artists, and families (  NYU buildings and dorms circle the perimeter of the park, so the park is often associated with the university.  The park still holds two art fairs annually—one in May and one in September.   According to the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit website, the fairs take place “every Memorial Day Weekend and the weekend that follows and every Labor Day weekend and the weekend that follows that” (  This event is designed to give talented artists and artisans from around the world an opportunity to gather in New York City to showcase their art.

Washington Square Park is also frequently the home of a variety of other events.  Most recently, on April 7, 2012, New York City’s 7th Annual Pillow Fight took place at the park.  Although I did not participate, I witnessed countless New Yorkers (mostly students) smack each other with pillows, which ended in a fun feathery mess.  This event proved to me that to this day, Washington Square Park has maintained its reputation as a laid back yet beautiful spot for people of all ages to relax, hang out, and have fun.  It is one of the few public areas in Manhattan where one can be a step away from both a beautiful garden and a busy, skyscraper-lined street filled with NYC taxis. 

**For some reason the photo captioning is not working for me on all the pictures, but all the unlabeled photos were taken by me**

Works Cited

Boog, Jason. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Believer Sept. 2010: n. pag. The Believer.
     Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

Brewer, Cassie, and Cathy Morgan Hajo. “Depression – Washington Square Park,
     Sketch.” Greenwich Village History. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

“The Foggy, Foggy Don’t.” Time 77.17 (1961): 69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29
Apr. 2012.

“Guide to the Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection.” The New York
     Historical Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

Halford, Macy. “Orphans of the Great Depression.” The New Yorker 27 Aug. 2010:
     n. pag. The New Yorker. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

Hamil, Pete. Downtown: My Manhatan. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.

“Manhattan: Renovation at Washington Square Park.” The New York Times. N.p., 4
     Dec. 2007. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

Moke, Bernadette. “Hidden History of Washington Square Park.” Untapped New York.
N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

O’Neill, David, and Lisa Darms. “Guide to the Washington Square Park.” New York
     University Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

“Shades of ‘Emperor Moses’.” The Villager 1 Nov. 2006: n. pag. The Villager.
     Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <

“Stanford White.” The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

Sullivan, John. “A Lost Fight over Washington Square Park’s Renovation.” The New
     York Times. N.p., 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

“The Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit – Now in Its 82nd Year!”
     Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

“Washington Square Park.” City of New York Parks and Recreation. N.p., n.d. Web.
     10 Apr. 2012. <

“Washington Square Park.” Top Sightseeing. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

“Washington Square Park Renovation.” New York Times 23 Oct. 1986: 1. Academic
Search Complete
. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.

Williams, Timothy. “Washington Square Park, Haven for Eccentricity, Is Set to
     Fall into Line.” The New York Times. N.p., 10 May 2005. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.

6 thoughts on “Then and Now: Washington Square Park

  1. Very nice post. It’s informative and engaging, with appealing visuals and a good Depression-Recession focus. My only suggestions are, first, to trim and condense some of the material in the introduction, since the center of this should be more the Depression-Recession angle. Also, I’d like to see a bit of material (maybe a paragraph or two) about what happened to the park between 1945 and 2005, since you jump right to the present. Finally, if this sentence–“Today, the mansions on the south side were knocked down”–survives your edits, try to rephrase it to clarify that the destruction didn’t happen today.

  2. I was very impressed with this post. I found the prehistory of the park as a burial ground very interesting, and its rather unpredictable development as a center for the arts and bohemian lifestyle also quite fascinating. Your incorporation of primary sources and first-hand taken photos make this a compelling and truly engaging read, as the Professor already noted. I feel this post refined what a “Then and Now” blog can be, and most certainly what it should.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post because I often go to Washing Square Park and it’s absolutely beautiful. What stood out to me as the most interesting was that the residents around the park continuously participated in the development and growth of the park. First, by funding the project and later by objecting to the new park design.

  4. I really enjoyed your post as it provided us with a combination of history (much of which was new and surprising to me!) and present day information about the park (such as current events taking place, etc.)! This combination really demonstrates how the park has changed throughout the years. The pictures follow a similar trend and really allow us to compare and contrast the park throughout time, nice job!

  5. Michelle, your post is extremely informative and well structured. I took part in this year’s pillow fight. I am so happy that you mentioned it!

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