Washington Square Park is the center of Greenwich Village in New York City. Its almost ten acres were at times home to Native Americans, African-Americans, Dutch and English settlers, and garrisons for troops stationed to prevent civil unrest. Minetta Brook ran through the Park in the 1600s. The only local reminder of the name is the Minetta tavern and Minetta lane about four blocks south. Nearby was Sapokanikan, a Native American village inhabited by the Lenape tribe. The name Manhattan is derived from the tribe's Unami language. The Black settlers used the area for farm land and it became the heart of the African-American community. The area was purchased by the City in 1797 and used as a paupers' burial ground beginning in that year. Many of those paupers' deaths were from the yellow fever and cholera outbreaks. The remains of 20,000 souls still lay beneath the Park.
It is named after George Washington, the nation's first president and commander of the centennial army. Literally shaped like a square, Waverly Place marks Washington Square North, and University, Fourth Street and McDougal Street mark the other directions to complete the box. Washington Square Arch dominates the north end of the Park. The fountain and plaza are centered in the square. New York University almost surrounds the area and floods it with students. The New York City Parks Department maintains the Park in conjunction with the Washington Square Association and the Washington Square Park Conservatory, private volunteer groups. The Association has provided over 100 years of service to the neighborhood and sponsors the Annual Holiday Tree Lighting and a Music Festival. The Conservatory, incorporated in 2012 as a non-profit organization, supports the landscaping, maintenance and community in the Park, and also offers financial support to local groups that provide free cultural programs.
Artists, musicians and writers find it inspiring. André Kertész’ photographs taken from his 12th floor apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue overlooking the Park capture a tranquil snowy beauty. Henry James wrote "Washington Square", a romance novel set in the 1840s in which Catherine dies an unhappy spinster. It was adapted as a play and as a film "The Heiress", starring Olivia de Havilland. Bob Dylan stayed at the Washington Square Hotel, then known as the Hotel Earle, outside the northwest corner of the Park. He was there with Joan Baez in 1964 when she wrote "Diamonds and Rust", maybe while looking out the window of "that crummy hotel over Washington Square", where Dylan often hung out.
On Labor Day in 1912, 20,000 protesters marched to commemorate the death of 148 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of March 25, 1911. My great-aunt, Rose Oringer, was one of victims. I wonder whether she had ever visited the Park after working on nearby Greene Street. The 1961 Beatnik riot was a result of protesters being arrested after the denial of a music permit. Occupy Wall Street protests took place in the 2010s and racial justice protests in the 2020s.
The photographs in this book were taken from 2001 through 2022. Portraits of people, musicians and entertainers, protesters, chess players and dogs. They show the main areas of the Park but most importantly they show the people and a sense of community among a diverse and eclectic cross section of humanity. Hopefully they give you a feel of what it would be like to be in the Park. A Joanna Newsome song, “Sapokanikan”, named for the village says the “cause is Ozymandian”, implying the impermanence of even the powerful, and pays homage to what has been lost along the way since that village existed. Everything does pass, but the photographs that follow sustain a permanence and memory of these people and events.
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