Guest Entry: Jonathan Greenberg responds to New York Times article, “The Battle of Washington Square”

washington square park at dusk

washington square park at dusk

Jonathan Greenberg is the founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and lived near Washington Square Park for more than 30 years. He has fought tirelessly to preserve the public space and unique aspects of Washington Square Park despite the obstacles and obfuscations put in play by the Bloomberg Administration and New York City Parks Department. He shared this letter with me and it is today’s guest entry.

Guest Entry: Jonathan Greenberg

Letter to the New York Times

To the Editor:

Your recent front page City section coverage of the “Battle of Washington Square” (November 23, 2008) set reality on its head by distorting and misreporting the truth about why Greenwich Village community activists like me are angry about the radical redesign of Washington Square Park.

Despite the article’s 2,300 word length and the fact that he has confirmed knowledge of every fact in this letter, Times reporter Graham Bowley decided to ignore the most relevant information that the “Paper of Record” ought to have provided readers with. In portraying community activists like myself as “bitterly angry” and full of “fury,” as we tried to “write our desires” on a park that we treat as our “personal fiefs,” while reporting, unchallenged, Parks Department claims that the “transformation of Washington Square Park has been one of the most open in the agency’s history,” the Times leaves readers with the insulting impression that the lawsuits and protests over the park’s redesign were much ado about nothing, except the egos of those involved.

For instance, the Times reports that in October, 2005, Community Board (CB) 2 “rejected” a compromise that would have limited the reduction in the park plaza’s size. Incredibly, the article fails to note that neither the Board, nor the public, were ever provided with the plans for the park redesign, nor were they told the truth about the reduction in the size of the park’s plaza. This was documented both in a judge’s ruling in favor of our first lawsuit, as well as in a web video which my group created and posted. In May, 2007, the same Community Board voted, 40 to 5, to rescind its earlier approval of the plan, because it had been provided with inadequate and incorrect information.

How information about this historically unprecedented vote failed to make it into this Times article reporting the Board’s earlier, ill-informed vote astounds me, and on behalf of our community, I request that the Times City section run a correction regarding this distortion.

Also missing from the article was the core reason why the redesign is so disturbing to thousands of us: the park’s central plan, which has served for decades as the most uniquely successful free speech and public gathering and musical performance space in the United States, is being transformed against the will of an overwhelming number of park users and park experts. At the core of this battle has been the issue of whether Washington Square Park needed a repair, (we all agree it did) or a redesign. Before this plan was imperiously disclosed to the public, I requested, in an Op Ed in the Villager newspaper, that the Parks Department survey the public on what needed changing, and how their intended design changes would impact the park’s usage. When Parks refused, my group surveyed more than 500 park users, and found that 98% preferred a repair to a redesign.

Soon after, the prestigious Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was hired by the Washington Square Park Council, a group that initially supported a redesign, to survey and study the park and its users. The Villager’s headline reporting the results read, “Study finds people like Wash. Sq. the way it is.” PPS’s Senior Vice President told the Villager, “People basically just love this park to death…They like the different levels and they like the configuration… The fountain really functions as a social place. There’s really nothing like it in the United States… I would be very, very hesitant to change that, because of how well it functions.”

This objective, essential study went unreported by the Times. Indeed, while we fought for the park’s renowned public usage as a gathering space, it was the private fiefdom of an imperious Parks Department Commissioner (Adrian Benepe) which forced a redesign of the park’s central plaza through, insisting that the sunken plaza be brought to street level grade, reduced in size by 25% and made inhospitable to impromptu sing-alongs and performances that the park is famous for. By converting the plaza’s famous fountain to an ornamental fountain with a 40 foot spray that will no longer be accessible to performers or sunbathers except when it is turned off, probably by permit, the Parks Commissioner has unilaterally changed the most important public tradition of Washington Square Park as the town square of our great melting pot of a city.

Then there is the matter of renaming the century old fountain “Tisch Fountain.” While the Times reports that this concerned residents, it neglects to mention that a secret contract was signed between the Parks Department and the Tisch foundation in January, 2005 for the renaming, and that this agreement was withheld from the Community Board, City Council, and Landmarks hearings until after they had voted for the plan, and only revealed after an activist’s Freedom of Information Act request uncovered it.

Instead of reporting such facts, the Times repeats two demonstrably false claims by the Parks Department that this was the most “open process” in 30 years, while disparaging a “small core” of shill protesters for failing to accept change. Like many New Yorkers, I feel that our elected representatives and our institutions failed our community in preserving the great public square that Washington Square Park had become. As a result of this misleading article, our city’s greatest newspaper, sadly, joins these ranks.

I look forward to reading your correction and apology.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Greenberg

Jonathan Greenberg, founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition, lived near the park for more than 30 years. A journalist and new media executive, he holds a master’s law degree from Yale Law School.

12/2/08

*** Photo: Richard

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3 Comments

  1. LewisR

     /  December 5, 2008

    I love the book Around Washington Square, because it notes many of the different designs that the Park has had over the many, many decades. I’m not sure why Mr. Greenberg feels that the last design is somehow the one that should be set in perpetuity. And he seems far more upset about the process rather than the plan. He’s probably right, but that doesn’t really help the Park. I do think that there are things worth knocking about the new design, but there was about an equal number of them with the old design, too. Probably would be with any design.

    I don’t know a lot about all of it, but as a performer and patron of the Park for 27 years, I can say that anyone who stands on grounds that the fountain was a great performance space is just. plain. wrong. The fountain was never good for performers – it was too big to be a true theater-in-the-round – that’s why amplifiers were brought in in the ’80’s. But that was bad and caused the locals to crack down on performers. The water spouts were a danger for tumblers. The surface was awful for dancers’ feet – if you ever wondered why they never used it. Acoustics suck so it was never good for singers – if you wondered why they always performed on the circles outer edges. So, about all is left is the stand-up hucksters, and there are more than enough reasons why they were about the only ones to ever use the fountain regularly. Anyone can come up with good reasons to hate the Park (I got mine – dog runs! – never before in the Park’s history), but please, I wish folks would stop using performers as their reason to take a stand.

  2. cat

     /  December 8, 2008

    Hi Lewis,

    In my reading of Emily Kies Folpe’s book, “It Happened on Washington Square,” I didn’t get that there had been “many different designs” … “over the many, many decades.” I do not think this park had been redesigned that many times in its over 100 year old history.

    The aspects of design that Jonathan Greenberg has a problem with are over bulldozing the parts that have been successful in its usage as a public space and whether those aspects should be saved and acknowledged even in a redesign of a park. There is a GREAT reduction in the public space, more was even revealed at the Washington Sq Park Task Force meeting last week.

    If there is great sentiment that people like certain things while acknowledging that they don’t like others – which greatly had to do with the park falling into disrepair – shouldn’t the ‘good things’ be saved? This combined with the process which made a mockery of the community via endless meetings in which they were either ignored, lied to, or patronized.

    The way the Parks Department plays a shell game over restoring and fixing the bathrooms – something most everyone would like made a priority – and they just smile and lie through their teeth. It’s quite disgusting truthfully.

    I hear what you are saying about the fountain. I’ve only heard people appreciating the fountain and how it works but perhaps you have a point …

    Thanks for writing!

    Cathryn
    WSP Blog

  3. LewisR

     /  December 8, 2008

    Cat, I’m pretty sure that Luther Harris’s book goes into good detail on the different places in the park that had stages in the days way before the bus circle, and even before the stages, there were redesigns from when the park was used for military marching training, and there were changes even before that (although I understand the hanging stuff is pure myth). Then there was more than one redesign that used the middle circle for driving, for walking, and for the bus turnout point. Then the redesign that did away with the driving circle, and another since then – that added the mounds. So, that’s several redesigns, and I don’t even have the book in front of me.

    But again, you, like Mr. Greenberg, seem more upset with the process than the product, which is fine – it just doesn’t do anything about helping the Park. I was at the meeting last week, and thought it went very well for the community. Personally, were I the designer or moderator, I would have had to tell more than one person to take a hike. You can’t tell me that several of the questions (for lack of a better word) had nothing to do with making the Park better, but were more for folks to hear themselves talk – it’s a common event at community board meetings, but we should all be a lil’ more humble in this regard.

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