If I had only one Saturday afternoon to spend in Manhattan, I think I would choose to spend it in Washington Sq. Park at Greenwich Village. This is a place where everyone can be themselves, or in some cases, who they would like to be.
Let’s start with Greenwich Village the neighborhood. Once the home of notable poets (e.e. cummings), authors (Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe), and artists (Edgar Hopper), Greenwich Village was a place of decaying warehouses with cheap rent, appealing to then less-than-prosperous but destined-to-be-famous artists. With the rents no longer cheap, most apartments are now filled with old yuppies and parent-supported NYU students. But the color and love of art and self-expression remains and is held as a precious icon of the area.
The streets are lined with one-of-a-kind shops, coffee bars, restaurants, comedy clubs and bars, colorful windows breaking forth from aging buildings. Today there is a street festival adding more color to the day. The neighborhoods surrounding the park and colorful businesses are mostly 19th century. I will try to write more on that at another time.
To the east between 5th and 6th avenues along 4th street is the jewel of this area. Maybe “heart” would be a better description. Washington Sq. Park. This ground has been many things in its past. Once a marshland, a dueling ground, then a public cemetery. In the 1800’s 10,000 skeletons were exhumed; the brook was diverted underground and a beautiful arch was built to mark the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration. The arch still stands on the north side of the park. In the center is a fountain that may or may not work. The park itself is so a full square block, but otherwise unremarkable. So, what is it that makes the park so special?
Perhaps this is the space that New Yorkers and their visitors have unofficially designated as the place to come to express themselves and to accept others for their own expressions.
Maybe this is best described by the people who we observed there. In the center fountain (now dry) were a trio of hip hop dancers and their plastic pail drums. Standing round the fountain were a couple hundred people encouraging them. The performance was nothing special, but it was THEIR performance and the crowd acknowledged their moxy.
To the east there was an old man, probably Bohemian, and presumably his daughter. They were making large bubbles for the children to chase. And they did, along with a few playful adults.
To the South a middle-aged man (not Tip) played his guitar. It was an average performance, until a stranger joined in with a voice that sounded like one of the Four Seasons. Two more voices joined in – now we had a Trio and a guitar. It turned out to be entertaining.
Further north was an old Asian woman instructing 3 young girls in ballet. Their music gently mingled with the guitar group and the hip hop drums.
Most of us sat on lawn, ledges and benches to soak in the golden sunlight, the cacophony of sounds, and the Bohemia of warm humanity.