Marlon Brando and Washington Square 1940’s

Washington Square Park as it looked when Marlon Brando slept on sidewalk

Updated 3:06 p.m. — Marlon Brando arrived in New York City in 1943 after he was expelled from a Minnesota military school. He wrote in his autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”, about his experience in the Village and Washington Square:

As I got out of the cab delivering me from Pennsylvania Station to my sister’s apartment in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1943, I was sporting a bright red fedora that I thought was going to knock everyone dead.

I cherish my memories of those first few days of freedom in New York, especially my sense of liberation from not having to submit to any authority, and knowing that I could go anyplace and do anything at any time.

One night I went to Washington Square and got drunk for the first time. I fell asleep on the sidewalk and nobody bothered me. …

It was ecstasy sleeping on the sidewalk of Washington Square, realizing I had no commitment to anything or anyone. If I didn’t feel like going to bed, I didn’t. I formed the sleeping patterns of a lifetime; stay up past midnight, sleep til ten or eleven the next morning.

Once I stayed up all night at a party in Brooklyn and looked out the window at a gray dawn at about six A.M. and watched the streets glow with the headlights of buses, cars and taxis. Then the sidewalks began to fill up with people carrying briefcases and scurrying to their offices. I thought, God, wouldn’t it be awful if I had to get up and go to work like that every day?

Frannie, who lived in an apartment near Patchin Place in the Village, invited me to move in with her. I got a job as an elevator operator at Best & Company department store, then worked as a waiter, a short-order cook, a sandwich man, and at other jobs I don’t remember now.

This photo – amazing, isn’t it? – captures an aerial view of what the Washington Square area looked like circa 1940-1949.

Photo credit: The Washington Square Park (New York, N.Y.) and Washington Square Area Image Collection; New York University Archives, New York University.

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Reflections on Sunday’s New York Times article, “The Battle of Washington Square”

Sunday’s November 23rd New York Times cover featured a photo of the Washington Square Arch promoing the article, “The Battle of Washington Square,” which prominently appeared on the “City” section cover with an array of photos capturing the park’s illustrious history.

The Bloomberg Administration’s push to radically redesign this public space has been under the radar for way too long. However, let me be clear — the issue was never about anyone in the community not wanting repairs, upgrades and a spiffier Washington Square Park. The park needed a renovation as the New York City Parks Department let it fall into serious disrepair.

The issues were (and still are) about the Process – how this extreme revisioning of this prominent public space was pushed through – and the Design – what the park’s composition would ultimately be, one that chooses to ignore what actually worked and was successful about the park.

When first contacted by New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, I thought … at last the story will be told.

And it’s great the story has at last been told.  It’s complex and it has unfolded over more than four years.  It’s about community and democracy vs. money and power and a government subsumed by its own arrogance.  There is still more of the story to be told.  While the Times gives an overview of what’s transpired thus far and reminds us how important Washington Square Park is as a public space, the story still doesn’t quite get to some key facets of the argument, of the timeline, of the nuance, and sidesteps the city’s corrosive and corrupt actions.

Outlined below are my thoughts and supplemental information to the article which, overall, is a welcome addition into the dialogue around what’s transpired to date to Washington Square Park.

Blogging as “Venting” ?

Mr. Bowley, in a way that I’m sure – to his mind – was a vehicle to add color to the article, describes my blog as a way for me to “vent my frustration.” I consider the Washington Square Park blog a place for my writing and p.r. background to be put to good use. An outlet in the so-called “Battle of Washington Square” to: track the process, analyze it, write about it substantively, and advocate for change. I don’t believe that is venting.  The use of the word venting feels very old vs. new media.

Characterizations and Omissions

The cost of the project

The writer states that the park redesign will cost “$16 million-plus.” Very vague, especially since, Phase I alone, initially budgeted at $6 million is now costing over $13 million – by the Parks Department’s own admission. More than double the projected cost. So, is there any real way that the remaining TWO phases can be anything less than $25 million? In a financial crisis – and really at any time – is this the way our city money should be spent?

Unattributed statements

The story states: “Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements.” And yet none are quoted. It continues, “Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase I of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.”

Perhaps if the piece had not glossed over the lies by George Vellonakis — the “landscape designer” who was given license to alter this historic park with an unimaginative design — to the community; if Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was not given a blanket opportunity to make his greenwashing statements about the park being more “green” without a rebuttal; if the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board meetings – which are all on video and which the Times watched – were not just breezed through towards the end of the article, perhaps then, the reader would understand why people might be “bitterly angry,” if that’s even the case.

Characterizations

It seems to me that the City “officials” are put on pedestals in which they are immune to characterizations. In my opinion, on this playing field, we are all equal participants. If Adrian Benepe lies, that should be in the article. If George Vellonakis shows his arrogance in a meltdown on camera when he thinks his “design” might be stopped, he’s fair game. If George Vellonakis also lies and misappropriates information to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that should be in the article. That is part of the story. Understandably, that fuels community anger.  (Much of this footage is contained in the documentary mentioned in the story, SQUARE:  Straightening Out Washington Square Park.”)

What can be done?

I am glad that Graham Bowley – who assimilated years of information in preparing this story – and the New York Times covered the topic of Washington Square Park’s redesign despite some of the omissions from the piece.

I mentioned Saturday that my comments were inaccurate a few times in the story. And I would like to clarify this one, with which the article ends:

“[Ms. Swan] hopes that when Phase I of the renovation is completed and Phase 2 begins next year on the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the square, she may still be able to persuade parks department officials to save some of the trees or the pathways or the alcove seating that she says was such a facilitator of conversation.”

“The biggest question people ask is, ‘Why?’ Ms. Swan said. Why are they doing this?

“There was a huge mass of people who fought for three to four years,” she added. “A lot soon ran out of steam, but there are still some people fighting. Though I am not sure a lot can be done.”

I did not say that last sentence. I would never say that. I said, “[some] people do not think a lot can be done” or they don’t know what to do. But that’s not me, folks. I think a lot can be done to maximize and retain the dynamic elements of this public space, still.

Sunday New York Times City Section Cover Story 11/23: The Battle for Washington Square

Tomorrow’s New York Times City section features a cover story “The Battle for Washington Square,” an effort by reporter Graham Bowley to outline what’s transpired thus far around New York City government’s controversial redesign of this renowned park and dynamic public space over the last four years.

What’s transpired could be a multi-part series or a book (and is a movie), so it would be exceedingly difficult to get every last nuance into one story. I’m still assimilating the article but a few immediate comments – it’s puzzling that there are no current photos of the park under construction especially because the Times sent a photographer on my September Walking Tour highlighting the redesign elements of the park.  The online story only portrays pictures of Washington Square Park in the past which strikes me as a bit, um, odd.

There’s a nice synopsis of the Park’s value as a public space: “perhaps … [no park is] more valued than the 10-acre, 181-year-old Washington Square Park, the beating heart of Greenwich Village. Through the decades the park has been the haunt of some of America’s best-known artists, writers, musicians, anarchists and Beatniks, and a seemingly round-the-clock distillation of the frenetic spirit of New York.”

The reporter Graham Bowley walked with me through the Park a few months ago. There are a few inaccuracies as far as my comments. For example, Mr. Bowley quotes me as saying of the new exterior fence – currently being installed at 4 feet tall with unapproved “decorative spears” on top, vs. the current height of 3 feet: “That keeps you out. That is very threatening.” Actually, what I said is that it is not welcoming.

And I definitely think things can be done from here on. See my further comments: “On Washington Square Park’s Design Going Forward” here.

I welcome the New York Times covering the story – the story has been woefully un- (and under) reported to date – and I hope it leads to others. There are so many more pieces of what transpired to be told. And I’d love to hear other feedback from you.

My Conversation with NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe. Part II: When city officials spread “wrong information”

New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said to me, “It’s all those crazy bloggers spreading wrong information.”

I suppose officials always need a scapegoat. But what about when the City official in charge of an agency, say, the Parks Department, knowingly spreads wrong information? What then?

Washington Square Park

On the cutting back of public space in Washington Square Park Commissioner Benepe argued, “There’s no reduction of public space.”

The facts: In reality, there’s a 23% reduction of the central plaza in Washington Square Park, according to the blueprints. That’s 23% less room — not even including the reduction in public space due to the reconfiguration of the old fountain, which served as a one-ring circus for performers and protests.

“The Community Board approved it,” hammered Benepe — a theme we’ve heard over and over again from City officials like Council member Alan Gerson and Council Speaker Christine Quinn too. In reality, the Community Board rescinded its approval over a year ago, at a meeting April 19, 2007. Said the commish: “That’s not true.” Well, yes, it is.

Union Square Park

In discussing how the community would like to see something different at Union Square Park than what the Parks Department is offering, Commissioner Benepe retorted, “Why did the Community Board support it? Why did the Arts Commission?”

The next day to NY1, Commissioner Benepe relayed the following: “It’s really a terrific plan, we’ve been working on it for five years,” said Benepe. “It was fully approved overwhelmingly by the community board…”

The facts: According to Community Board 5 Chair David Siesko, “Despite all of the public observations, Community Board Board Five has not yet taken a position on the future use of the pavilion”, which the Mayor wants to turn into a private restaurant most likely owned by, or affiliated with, Union Square Partnership co-chair, Danny Meyer.

Commissioner Benepe then said to me, “The projects are moving forward.” … Truth be damned? So much for us “crazy bloggers.”

My Conversation with NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe. Part I: On Cutting Down Trees

I encountered New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan on Sunday, April 27th. (See previous entry on this event here.)

He had just finished a photo op “planting” a cherry tree in memory of 40 years ago when the community blocked Columbia University from building a gymnasium at Morningside Park.

We discussed several topics, mostly focusing on Washington Square Park and Union Square Park.

Part I: Trees

I asked Commissioner Benepe about the trees at Union Square Park and the fact that they were being cut down to build a restaurant. He replied, “You’re misinformed. The trees are being cut down for the playground. We’re planting new trees.” I said, “That’s not the same.” He stated, “The trees are dying there. They’d have to come down anyway.” I said, “That’s just what landscape architects say.” (A landscape architect told me, they like to “start fresh” [blank canvas] to work with their own design. Often that entails taking down existing trees.) Commissioner Benepe started relaying his credentials to me to prove he knows about trees.

The facts: The photo above shows the very clearly living trees at Union Square Park which Commissioner Benepe was referring to and wants to cut down. NYC Park Advocates’ Geoffrey Croft told me that one tree is scheduled to come down for the restaurant – so it’s not that the tree destruction is limited to the playground.

Croft remarked to me when I questioned him about this, “Why can’t they incorporate these really wonderful trees on the East side into the playground design?” — an excellent point.

14 trees are slated to be chopped down at Union Square Park if the City has its way. Presently, a restraining order from the recent lawsuit is in effect which prevents this from happening.

At Washington Square Park. 11 trees have been chopped down thus far.

In discussing this with Commissioner Benepe, he stated that the trees at Washington Square Park that were chainsawed were all “dead.” This was news to me. I said to him, “Four.” Not all. (According to the Parks Department’s own statements. And even there, they asserted that they were “unhealthy,” not dead.) He repeated back to me, “Four. Right.” Again, he responded: “We’re planting new trees.” I said, “I know that’s what you always say but that’s not the same. Those were mature trees.” Someone else standing near by said that they were 100 year old trees. He said, “They weren’t that old.” I commented that they were 40-80 years old. He nodded.

I’d never heard that the trees at either Washington Square Park or Union Square Park were “dead” or “dying” until my conversation on Sunday with Parks Commissioner Benepe. It seems a little too convenient how quick New York City’s Parks Commissioner is to state that trees are dead in our parks when that becomes an easy way to remove them.

More on this conversation on Friday.

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Photo: Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates