Sitting on a park bench, in Washington Square, my mind wanders as I imagine this space as it was in another era. I remember a time when it was best known for it’s dissidents, war protesters and drug dealers. But the land now known as Washington Square Park has had many lives.
In its indigenous state, the area was marshy and home to abundant wildlife. That was before there was an America or even a New York.
In 1643 Manhattan was a Dutch trading post. Business was booming, the population was growing, and food shortages were becoming common. The Dutch, to increase food supplies, granted the area now known as Washington Square Park to freed slaves to build their own farms.
It remained farmland for over a hundred years, though the free slaves lost their land rights after the English claimed Manhattan from the Dutch.
In the late 1700s there was a major outbreak of yellow fever in New York (which did not include land this far north). City leaders acquired the farmland for a potter’s field to be used for indigents and victims of disease outbreaks, keeping them safely away from town and the water supply. The cemetery was closed in 1825, but 20,000 graves remain under the park.
As the population grew and moved north, city leaders decided the cemetery would make a good parade ground for the volunteer militia. With much leveling, landscaping and other décor, the site hosted a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration of independence, July 4, 1826.
Over the years the square was renovated several times and was often a gathering place for riots, protest, and union demonstrations.
The current fountain, located in the center of the park, originally sat at one of the southern entrances to Central Park and was relocated to the square during one of the many renovations.
In 1889 the city planned a major extravaganza to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. Architect and design artist Stanford White, famous for many of the classic designs of New York City’s gilded age, designed a temporary triumphal arch for the celebration.
White, who was known for his extravagant and imaginative flair, designed a temporary arch with papier-mache and plaster. Sitting at the foot of 5th avenue, the arch stood grand. To turn the event into an “experience” he bedecked the park with flags and lined the curbs of 5th avenue with lanterns. It was such a sensation that White was commissioned to design the permanent arch in marble.
In the years following, Washington Square emerged as the center of a young bohemian community. Artists, writers and radicals from all over the country have made their way to Greenwich Village and Washington Square to pursue their art and lend their support to the causes of labor, pacifism, and women’s rights.
Washington square park remains a place where people go to enjoy a sunny afternoon, to watch artists at work, listen to musicians, hand a dollar to the pigeon man, chase bubbles or to just hang out and people watch.
It is a wonderful place to just celebrate yourself.