Two Letters on Washington Sq Park’s New Design

Sharon Woolums’ Letter to the Editor in weekly the Villager (June 3rd, 2009):

To The Editor:

After the initial euphoria of just having the park opened and reveling in the perfect spring day, I reflected on where the $13 million went, and now realize what disturbs me. I miss the sunken fountain, so beautifully set apart from the street. Now the fountain is an extension of the street, instead of the beginning of something completely different. You felt drawn down — invited into the fountain. Now it’s more like the fountain is an object you are supposed to look at instead of being drawn into, to experience.

The redesigned park looks like something imposed on the Village, boring and uneventful: flattened out. The fountain area, bland and generic, instead of exciting and unique, looks more like a corporate plaza than a park. The huge walkway with the gigantic planters in the middle looks like an outdoor mall in Wisconsin. And that poor tree around the fountain, died of a heartache.

Now linear — before idiosyncratic; there was an off-centeredness that was deliberate. It represented people who live in the Village who march to a different drummer. Our park embodied democracy, now transformed undemocratically.

The landscaping is prissy, organized patches of vegetation not unlike that found in the gardening section of any Home Depot. But it all goes so well with N.Y.U.’s Kimmel Center. The park now looks like another N.Y.U. project, with the two telltale plaques on either side of the “Tisch! Fountain.” I can’t bring myself to say that. Too bad the fountain hadn’t been auctioned off to the highest bidder. It seems a $2.5 million advertisement for perpetuity is just dirt cheap.

The walls that surrounded the theater in the round created an acoustical field for the music; sound bounced back out, radiating from behind. Now there is nothing to deflect the music, it all gets meshed together with the competing sound of gushing water.

With the stroke of an architect’s pen, the park was forever stripped of its bohemian character, wiping away decades of history. We hope this sacrifice of comfort and possible clamoring for a conservancy (the privatization of our public park) will not kill the spontaneous creativity that happened naturally here, once upon a time. We hope that glorious time will not die like the tree in the circle.

Sharon Woolums

(WSP Blog note- the letter is slightly shortened for space reasons.)

Photographer Stacy Walsh Rosenstock wrote in to WSP Blog recently about the new design in response to an older post, “Wouldn’t it be ironic if – after everything – the Washington Square Park Fountain was off-center to the Arch?“:

As someone whose dog insists we Washington Square on a daily basis now that the weather’s good, I find that nothing seems to look “right” when we enter from the South.

In the older design, with the fountain to the west and more open space coming up from Thompson Street, there was a more gradual lead-in to the circle. Now the path certainly looks skewed and, in photos, it’s nearly impossible to form a visual grid of major planes.

Sometimes designs that appear so perfect on paper don’t necessarily work out in three dimensional visual space. Or maybe Stanford White and others involved in the park’s major features knew a thing or two about dealing with asymetrical space.

Photo: Cat

Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park — Home to Two Stanford White-designed structures

I went by Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn over the weekend. The Urban Park Rangers in the Fort Greene Park Visitors Center told me a bit of the park’s history. They informed me that Stanford White, principal of McKim, Mead & White (noted NYC architects in the early 20th century) and renowned architect of the Washington Square Park Arch (and Judson Church, among others), was also the designer of the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument (pictured) and the Visitor Center/Rest Rooms, a building the American Institute of Architecture apparently refers to as “the most elegant outhouse in the world.”

Fort Greene Park is quite a treasure and a well-utilized park. Nothing too bohemian or out of the ordinary happens there but it has its purpose as a place you go to just … be. (Or play basketball or tennis!) It’s pure park vs. a more “public space” like Washington Square where things … happen in public. (No performances or protest appear to occur regularly at Fort Greene Park.) And while Washington Square Park is just (under) 10 acres, Fort Greene Park is a bit over 30.

The only unfortunate thing about Fort Greene Park is that it appears entirely ruled by the private Fort Greene Conservancy, to the point where you’d (almost) never know it was part of the New York City Park System!

Some background on the Park from the Parks Department: During the battle of Long Island, in the late 1700’s, “the British held thousands of captives on prison ships anchored in the East River. Over 11,500 men and women died of overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease aboard the ships, and their bodies were hastily buried along the shore. These brave patriots represented all thirteen colonies and at least thirteen different nationalities. In 1808 the remains of the prison ship martyrs were buried in a tomb on Jackson Street (now Hudson Avenue), near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Brooklyn fort was renamed for General [Nathanael] Greene and rebuilt for the War of 1812. When the threat of war passed, locals enjoyed visiting the grounds of the old fort for recreation and relaxation. The City of Brooklyn designated the site for use as a public park in 1845, and [Brooklyn Daily Eagle] newspaper editor Walt Whitman rallied popular support for the project. In 1847 the legislature approved an act to secure land for Washington Park on the site of the old fort.”

The Monument for the prison ship martyrs (there is a crypt underneath with their bodies), erected in 1908, was the last building Stanford White designed. He did not live to see it built. He was shot to death in 1906 by his (ex) young mistresses’ husband on the roof of Madison Square Garden, a building he also designed (a previous version, not the one standing now).

Fort Greene Park was first named Washington Park; the original master plan was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (architects behind Central Park and Prospect Park among many notable works) in 1864.

Photos: Cat

“Bidding adieu to BIDS” — on the Business Improvement Districts in New York City

The Brooklyn Paper takes a look this week in an editorial, “Bidding Adieu to BIDS,” at the formation in the ’70’s of the Business Improvement District, an entity which has become increasingly popular in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. According to the weekly, there are 60 “quasi public” BIDS, as they are called, throughout the five boroughs.

As I’ve written here before, these organizations play a complex role in neighborhoods, taking over services the City itself should be providing, while spreading their tentacles outward in ways that are never quite as harmless as they may seem.

One newly formed BID — which is experiencing a mini-revolt amidst local business owners — is along Fulton Street in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. The businesses are being asked to pay a second “new city tax that would fund enhanced sanitation, policing and other basic services.” From the Brooklyn Paper editorial:

Taxes on business owners within the so-called “BIDs” raise $80 million — on top of the taxes already taking a bite out of Mom and Pop.

We’re not naive as to why BIDs were created two decades ago. The city was not — and, indeed, is still not — doing a good enough job providing sanitation and security along some of our busiest commercial strips. With the city abrogating these most basic of services, business owners jumped into the breach, taxing themselves to make up for the failure of our elected leaders to ensure clean and safe streets.

In the case of Fulton Street, another issue is arising in the debate. The anti-BID merchants argue that a BID’s cleaner and safer streets actually speed the gentrification process. … In a sense, the business owners forming a BID would actually be paying to speed their own demise.

… We agree with the BID renegades on the issue of who should pay to keep our neighborhoods clean, safe and vibrant. To us, this is solely a city responsibility.

Although the Brooklyn Paper almost comes out in favor of gentrification in their Editorial, claiming it’s all about “change,” the rest of the information is on point.

For more on the Business Improvement Districts and their negative consequences, see previous WSP blog post: Parks for Sale and the Privatization of our Public Spaces by Robert Lederman which looks at the Business Improvement District, the (purposefully) mildly named Union Square Partnership, which oversees – and has total control over – Union Square Park.

For more on the Business Improvement District around Washington Square, the also benignly named Village Alliance (formerly the 8th Street BID), see recent WSP Blog post here.

What we need are COMMUNITY Improvement Districts!

French Film Fridays – WSP to host “March of the Penguins” Friday, June 12th (Update: Moved to Monday, June 15th); Other films subsequent Fridays

The New York City Parks Department in conjunction with the Cultural Center of the French Embassy is presenting French Film Fridays for Free, or what they call “Films on the Green,” in June and July. The series began this past Friday, June 5th (actually, due to rain it was moved to Sunday) at Central Park. The festival moves next to Washington Square Park for three Fridays beginning this Friday, June 12th with the Academy-Award winning “March of the Penguins.”

Update: Apparently, “March of the Penguins” moved to Monday, June 15th, 8:30 p.m.

WSP Film Schedule: Friday, June 12th:March of the Penguins, the epic story of penguins fighting to survive in the Antarctic that made nature documentaries cool again.” Friday, June 19th:Microcosmos, a spectacular look into the tiny world of insects, with such highlights as bees collecting nectar, spiders wrapping their catch and a mosquito hatching.” Friday, June 26th: The Big Blue, Luc Besson’s timeless and fascinating movie unfolding in the enigmatic world of free-diving.”

This is a nice collaboration of the Parks Department with a cultural organization vs. handing over the reins to a private conservancy. The series moves to Tompkins Square Park after WSP for three films in July. The full information about the series can be found here. Seating begins around 8:15 p.m., films begin approximately 8:30 p.m./sunset. Rain date is the following Sunday. All free.

This Saturday Morning: Ducks In the Washington Square Park Fountain!

First there were two ducks and then one flew off…

Last week Bryant Park had ducks ambling about so maybe it’s the same pair and they are on an NYC Park tour

Thanks to Walking off the Big Apple for this tip and these photos and being there early this morning to capture this!

Musings: On Washington Square, The Villager and the Village Alliance BID

This week’s Villager features an article on the Washington Square Park ribbon cutting last week (May 28th). The writer is Albert Amateau who I met at the park’s opening the week prior. I’m a little stunned at this piece which glosses over anything that might have been problematic over the Park’s redesign. It’s not as if The Villager hasn’t reported it over the years, and in detail. There’s reference to some discord but little context. The little there is is allotted to one person who is quoted stating that “20 people” were against changes being made to the park. ??

It’s amazing how quickly the arguments can get lost or forgotten amidst the … pretty. This piece seems to rewrite history and ignore what was a truly problematic, non-transparent and unnecessarily hostile process put into place by the New York City government in the redesign of Washington Square Park.

On this blog, although I’ve certainly had people write in saying they love the new park, I’ve also had people write in with substantive and thoughtful explanations as to what they take issue with. Perhaps Mr. Amateau didn’t encounter many people who were able to give him concrete thoughts on-the-spot. Many people stayed away that day who felt uncomfortable with the “celebration.” Long time activist Mitchel Cohen, who was out of town, wrote in commenting and asked … why wasn’t anyone handing out flyers critiquing the Parks Department and informing people about what went on?

It’s a valid point and, as much as no one wants to be “the negative person” forever, it’s also important for other communities and other battles – and Washington Square Park’s history – that people know what went on here during the Bloomberg Administration.

On the Business Improvement District and their “significant” contribution?

Then there’s the question of the Village Alliance Business Improvement District (formerly the 8th Street BID) which is, it seems to me, gearing up to play a key role in any private conservancy. A conservancy is greatly opposed by the vast number of community members (and the Parks Department is well aware of this).

The Villager article states: “Honi Klein, president of the Village Alliance business improvement district, who raised significant funds for the Washington Square Park renovation, declared the phase-one completion a resounding success.”

From what I know, the Village Alliance raised $125,000 thus far with plans to raise another $125,000. Now, I’m not saying that’s a small amount of money but for a project (Phases I-III Washington Square Park Redesign) with a price tag of over $32 million, that’s really not a “significant” amount, is it?

****************************************************************

** For an up-to-date refresher on what the issues were and are, go here. **

Part II: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009: ReportBack

Updated

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe last Thursday’s (May 28th) Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Square Park which marked the “official” ceremony celebrating the reopening of the long-under-construction NW Quadrant and Fountain Plaza. It was a well planned event with food and drinks and music and speeches by elected officials and other community and business association members. But … who knew there were Parks Department flags, trucks, suitcases, tents? Parks Department flags lined the entire Plaza around the Fountain. Clearly, NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wanted to make certain without a doubt that, at the end of the day, they were happy with what they accomplished – despite a muddled and often questionable “process” along the way.

I almost titled this blog entry: “Spin. Spin. Spin.” Because the overarching theme of each person’s speech was that everyone in the end worked together and the Fountain Plaza has been consistently packed since the Opening Day the week prior therefore the whole project is … a success! And not that it isn’t … (I think there are good things with the redesign and questionable things..) but there’s so much more to the story that the fact that there was such an intentional emphasis on this one repeated theme felt unnecessary and uncomfortable to me.

Let’s just be honest. At this point, can’t the Parks Department concede a point or two? But that that was not to be was apparent with my reading pre-ceremony of the Parks Department press release titled, “Community Celebrates Re-Opening of Washington Square Park.” Yes, there were community members there but it was really more about the elected officials citing how they and “the community” worked together to help smooth over any disgruntlement (apparently, according to one speaker, to reach “consensus”) and … basically… we were all the better for it.

But back to this notion that a packed Fountain Plaza equates that the “renovation” (i.e., redesign) of Washington Square Park is a success. Other than the gray day that appeared on the day of the ribbon cutting, the previous week had been quite been stunning weather-wiseWhy wouldn’t people want to be gathering on a plaza in Greenwich Village around a (famous) Fountain…? Is that so unusual? (We live in a city with 8 million people and who knows how many tourists coming through at one time…)

I sat there one day the week the Park opened with my computer (no WiFi … but I actually don’t think there should be WiFi in Parks although it would be nice at times and it certainly would make my life easier…) around the Fountain and I really enjoyed sitting there. Do I still have concerns about the design…? Yes.

Some comments made at the ceremony:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe:

This is a special park and a special celebration today.

George Vellonakis spent a lot of time in the park. The project had to be explained again and again.

Along the way, there were some lawsuits. You don’t do anything in New York without a lawsuit.

The park is 20% greener now… we took a lot of the paving out.

Most of the mail we get isn’t positive. [then reads two positive letters received about the park]

NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

All the yelling was worthwhile… made the park more beautiful, more usable.

Always designed with the community in mind.

We have to thank NYU who has been a great partner in this.

NY City Council Member Alan Gerson

In my lifetime this is the third renovation I’ve lived through. Striking the right balance is essential. Everyone who argued, everyone who screamed, everyone who took part… [all led to this moment].

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer

Adrian Benepe is a piece of work. … He’s done an amazing job as Parks Commissioner. With community collaboration, great things can happen.

Pennies In The Fountain

Pennies In The Fountain

Village Alliance (local Business Improvement District) President Honi Klein

7 1/2 years ago started planning for the [renovation of the] park.

I was here Tuesday – Opening day. Washington Square Park is iconic … known for everything and anything goes. On Tuesday, there were more people here than you could possibly imagine.

Washington Square Association President Anne-Marie Sumner

There are natural tensions between the Parks Department and the Community [but we have a] magnificent result. A painters’ paradise.

Community Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman

I think we reached the best conclusion for the space.

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* Part I: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Phase I Opening in Photos June 1, 2009

Since Parks are being scaled back left and right (according to a story last week in the New York Post) due to budgetary concerns, will Washington Square Park be next?

Photos: Cat

Mayor Bloomberg Implodes?

The most interesting thing about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign – you know, the one made possible by his directing the City Council to overturn voted-in term limits – is watching him implode a bit. If a person deep down knows they did something not on the up-and-up, even if they’re getting away with it, I think they battle against an inner critic despite seemingly bypassing the outer ones.

Our Mayor is very wealthy and has gotten away with so much because of it (buying two elections for starters) and he seems to have a sense of entitlement that is causing him to, uh, act out a bit.

Most of the press gives him a free pass much of the time, other elected officials rarely speak out, his “competition” (ending term limits was supposed to give us more “choice” but instead has just given us less) is small and dwindles every day (Anthony Weiner just declared himself officially out of the race), and groups that might, with any other administration, speak out against some of his policies are quieted by his “private” “philanthropy.”

Therefore, it becomes almost gratifying to watch him take on himself and his inner demons in public with some verbal blunders.

From today’s New York Times, “The Latest Stray Words of An Off-The-Cuff Mayor“:

When you’re worth $16 billion, it’s all relative.

On Monday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — who owns homes in Bermuda, Florida, Colorado and London; travels the globe on two private jets; and plans to spend $80 million of his own money on a re-election bid — said that President Obama “does not get paid that much.”

That is, if a $400,000-a-year salary, a $50,000 expense account and a $19,000 entertainment budget qualifies as not much.

It was the latest puzzling remark in a re-election campaign filled with colorful foot-in-mouth mayoral utterances.

Campaign aides to Mr. Bloomberg are seeking to portray him as a sympathetic chief executive in touch with ordinary New Yorkers (witness a parade of commercials featuring a tieless mayor talking about jobs).

Mr. Bloomberg, however, has not made it easy. Since deciding to seek a third term last fall, he has declared that “we love the rich.” Reaching for an economic barometer, he described dwindling crowds at Bergdorf Goodman, the luxury department store.

He has scolded a disabled blogger, Michael Harris, who uses a wheelchair, for accidentally turning on a tape recorder at a news conference. And, last week, he bitterly rebuked a reporter, Azi Paybarah, who asked about his decision to overturn the city’s term limits law, telling him, “You’re a disgrace.”

Given Mr. Bloomberg’s commanding lead in the polls — he remains at least 10 points ahead of any rival — the missteps suggest that the biggest obstacles to his re-election are his own, unpredictable words.

If I hadn’t started the Washington Square Park Blog, my other idea was to write a blog about Mayor Bloomberg. I think a well done blog chronically the real effects of his tenure could make a difference. Maybe somebody else out there wants to take that on?

Part I: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009: Photos

ThePlazaFromAfar052809

Part II: Report-Back on the May 28th Washington Square Park Ribbon Cutting Event

Photos: Cat
Except Davis/Vellonakis: Tim Newman