Posts Tagged ‘Washington Square Park’

The 1950s plan for a Washington Square Highway

April 12, 2014

The history of New York City is littered with never-realized proposals: moving sidewalks, a burial ground in Central Park, and these 100-story apartment houses meant for Harlem.

Washingtonsquarenyu1950

Another half-baked idea that (luckily) never got off the ground was a plan for a highway running through Washington Square Park, proposed many times through the 1950s by “master builder” Robert Moses.

Washsquareparkplan1940As Parks Commissioner in 1940, Moses originally wanted to build a “double highway” snaking along the side of Washington Square Park (left).

At the time, a narrow roadway let vehicles go south from Fifth Avenue to Washington Square South (above, in 1950).

That double highway was shot down thanks to opposition from local residents, business owners, and NYU officials. But Moses wasn’t giving up so easily.

Washsquare1950splanIn the early 1950s, he proposed bisecting the park with a 48-foot-wide highway connecting Fifth Avenue to West Broadway—which would be widened and illustriously renamed Fifth Avenue South.

Naturally community leaders were outraged. In 1955, plans were submitted for a “depressed, four-lane highway running through the park in an open cut from Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch,” wrote The New York Times.

Washsquare1960s“Mothers and children, New York University students and others who use the park would be able to cross from one half of the park to the other by a foot-bridge thirty-six feet wide.”

Again, opposition was fierce. Jane Jacobs led the fight, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford in her corner.

They were fighting not only the Washington Square Highway plan but another Moses’ idea to raze 14 blocks of prime Greenwich Village real estate and build a series of apartment complexes.

By the end of the decade, Moses retreated. Washington Square Park has been remodeled and revamped, but at least it’s not crisscrossed by a superhighway.

[Photos: the Square in the 1950s and 1960s, New York University Archives]

“The Green Car” in Washington Square, 1910

December 22, 2011

Painter William Glackens didn’t have to go far to create this depiction of Washington Square at the turn of the last century.

He and his wife moved to 3 Washington Square North in 1904, and he had a studio at 50 Washington Square South.

“In The Green Car, a view to the north from his studio window, Glackens suggests this transition from old to new,” states the caption to this painting at metmuseum.org.

“In the background is a glimpse of “The Row,” the elegant red-brick, Greek Revival houses that had been built along Washington Square North in the 1830s and 1840s for some of New York’s most prominent old families.”

“In the foreground, a fashionably dressed young woman hails a streetcar, powered by underground electrical cables, which was emblematic of modern developments.”

Washington Square Park’s “Tramp’s Retreat”

October 3, 2011

“This image of a ragged fellow begging from a well-dressed woman in Washington Square . . . testifies to Washington Square’s split personality at the end of the 19th century,” writes Emily Kies Folpe in her terrific book, It Happened in Washington Square.

Folpe quotes an 1892 Century magazine article about the Square, which notes that one section was populated by homeless men and called “Tramp’s Retreat.”

This Harper‘s piece from 1900 identifies as on the southwest end.

While the northern, Fifth Avenue side of Washington Square was as elite and genteel as it was 50 years earlier, the southern side was now bordered by rooming houses . . . and filled with tramps.

“To the tramp, who is attracted hither in summer by the cool shade, the square serves several purposes. It serves him first in the capacity of a restaurant, where he may eat his luncheon unmolested,” states the Harper’s article.

Lastly it serves him as a lodging house, where he slumbers peacefully until the ‘sparrow cop’ comes around and awakens him.”

[Washington Square postcard from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The “watery slush” of Washington Square

February 16, 2011

The park was a favorite subject for Ashcan artist William Glackens, who depicts a late winter scene in “Washington Square, Winter” from 1910.

“Washington Square South was Glackens’s home from 1904 to 1913, and he painted more scenes of the square than any other subject except the beach near Bellport, Long Island,” states the website for the New Britain Museum of American Art, where the painting hangs.

“The Washington Square paintings were done in the winter, when the artist delighted in using paint to describe the thick mud, deep snowdrifts, and watery slush on the sidewalks.

“Once a fashionable address, it was by 1910 a diverse neighborhood, typical of the city of New York, which fascinated Glackens. Among the favored details that appear in his Washington Square series are the boy with the red sled, the green bus or trolley, and the woman in the flowered hat.”

“A Winter Wedding—Washington Square”

January 7, 2010

Painter Fernand Lungren captures wedding guests, coachmen, and passersby at dusk in the snow on genteel Washington Square North in 1897.

Like so many other New York artists, Lungren supported himself doing illustrations for popular magazines—such as Century and McClure’s.

Hard to believe, but at the time he painted this scene, the marble Washington Arch was only five years old!

A march on Washington Square

September 14, 2009

On May 10, 1933, 100,000 New Yorkers marched from Madison Square Park to Battery Park to protest Nazi policies and denounce anti-Semitism. This photo shows the marchers making their way down Fifth Avenue and through Washington Square Park.

A New York Times article reported that the participants were Jews “with many Christian sympathizers.”

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“While the demonstration was in progress, the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, at its one hundred and fiftieth convention at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, adopted a resolution expressing sympathy for the sufferers in Germany and calling upon Christians everywhere to voice disapproval of anti-Semitism,” the Times reported.

Minetta Brook beneath the Village

June 18, 2008

Minetta Brook, “once a placid stream dividing Manhattan Island from the North [Hudson] to the East River,” as described in a 1901 New York Times article, used to be flush with trout and surrounded by dense forest.

Native Americans named it “Manette,” or Devil’s Water. The Dutch called it “Bestevaer’s Killetje” which the British turned into “Bestavers Rivulet,” as it’s referred to in the upper right corner of this 1783 map, from The Historical Atlas of New York City. (Too bad the brook is cut off by the end of the map, so it’s tough to get a sense of where it flowed in to the East River, as the Times article states.)

As development pushed northward the brook was diverted beneath Washington Square, where it gurgled its way under the West Village. Minetta Street (below), a tiny lane intersecting little Minetta Place, bends slightly the way its namesake brook supposedly wound across the land.

In the lobby of the apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue is a clear tube through which Minetta brook used to bubble up out of the ground. Unfortunately, the doorman told me he hasn’t seen any water in it in six years. Could the Minetta have run dry? 

Before folk singers took over Washington Square

April 27, 2008

Cars and buses were allowed to drive through the park under the Washington Arch, this 1920s postcard shows. Vehicles got the boot in the late 1950s.

Amazingly, city officials in the 1950s thought about putting a four-lane highway across the park or building a tunnel under the park that would emerge on West Broadway.


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