Washington Square, A Place Apart

by

12/03/2022

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village, West Village

Image by Aurélie Bernard Wortsman

On January 23, 1917, artists Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan, poet Gertrude Dick, and three actors from the Provincetown Playhouse broke into a hidden spiral staircase in the Washington Square Arch and ascended to the summit. They dangled Chinese lanterns and red balloons, fired off toy cap pistols, and galivanted until dawn, whereupon, with Bohemian pomp and circumstance, they declared “a free and independent Greenwich Village.” A frivolous declaration no doubt, given the fact that World War I was raging, and it was only a matter of months before the U.S. would enter the fray. 

Frivolity has long been a hallmark of  the Village. Having migrated here in 1976 from the outer borough of Queens, I have witnessed a gradual makeover of the dominant mood from whimsy to wariness, a transformation driven by skyrocketing rents and the rising cost of living. Here, as elsewhere in New York, real estate rules the roost. But Washington Square Park remains a place apart.

An erstwhile marsh, fed by the trout-rich Minetta Stream that once ran through it, the area was once hunted and fished by the native Lenape. The land was swiped by the Dutch, who parceled it out and granted plots to freed African slaves to farm. The English gentry later elbowed them out. When recurrent epidemics of Yellow Fever threatened to ravage the city’s growing population, the ground where the park stands was designated a potter’s field. It was only a pivot of purpose, death being the unifying factor, from graveyard to garret. The last recorded public hanging was that of a certain Rose Butler, strung up for arson in 1820. A massive English elm thought to be Manhattan’s oldest tree, dubbed “Hangman’s Elm,” towers over the northwest corner of the park, recalling the insalubrious business. Public hangings were halted when the upscale residents of town houses abutting the perimeter objected. In 1826 the land was officially designated the Washington Parade Ground. Leveled and landscaped in 1870, under the administration of “Boss” William M. Tweed, the messy expanse was transformed into a park, festooned with a fountain, and in 1895 topped off with the triumphal arch designed by the architect Sanford White.

For 46 years and counting, I have witnessed the Square’s successive metamorphoses— from the grimy and exhilarating hotspot of the Seventies, when petty crime was rampant and music and most other amusements free, to the cocaine-induced high of the Nineties, when investment bankers and lawyers invaded the neighborhood and drove up the rent, to the clean-cut, anesthetized hiatus at the turn of the Millennium, when lawns were mowed, flowers planted, and the Park reclaimed as a virtual campus of the rapidly expanding New York University. More recently, there was the ghostly pall at the height of the Covid pandemic, when the “respectable” remained indoors or skipped town, and homeless human shadows roamed free. 

More recently, I am pleased to report, the Square has undergone a renaissance of sorts, and an antic, heart-thumping euphoria has once again taken hold of the perimeter.  

The police look on, bemused, as enterprising young dope dealers openly peddle neatly rolled joints of weed from folding tables set up around the fountain. Jazz bands jam, solo drummers bang out the beat, and daredevil skateboarders molly, noseslide, goofy foot and grind their way around. 

Each stroll in the Park feels like a tightrope walk. The daring pedestrian strikes a path past pushy panhandlers and proselytizers of every stripe: the shorn-headed Hare Krishna contingent chanting out their lungs; the soberly attired Mennonites in town from Pennsylvania to fish for lost souls; the young, black-suited Lubavitcher Hasidim stroking their first beards, descended from their Mitzvah Tank to ensnare strayed apostates and return them to the fold; and a lone, leathery-skinned Tarot card reader, donning a pointy dunce cap, his expression wavering between a smirk and a strained smile, reading the future for forlorn NYU freshmen.  I have witnessed a lone apostle step barefoot into the jets of the fountain and shed all his clothes until they carted him off.

Meanwhile, musicians, comics, acrobats, jugglers and all manner of performers wrestle for tips and applause. Two pianists vie for the crowd’s attention. One, orange haired and introverted, sits, straight backed and solemn, at a baby grand that he wheels in and out daily, fingering Chopin, Debussy, and other classical selections. The other, a gregarious, shaven-headed clown in loose-fitting harem pants, tickles out ragtime and rhythm and blues at the keyboard of his clunky upright, Jerry-Lee-Lewis-style. Each has a loyal following.

Pocket-Sized Statue

My current favorites among the talent on display are the “Pocket-Sized Statue,” a small man draped in little more than a loin cloth, Ghandi-style, painted marble-white from head to toe, standing stiff as an effigy for hours on end; the stationary cyclist, balanced on the front wheel of a forward-tilted bike, his stiff necktie and expressionless face frozen in time; and the Japanese dancer, a latter day Isadora Duncan in a shapeless black shift, waving her black hair wildly about as a banner of freedom, gyrating to the thump of a different drum.  

Meanwhile, more ominously, a shady crew of hard drug dealers and their resident clientele has taken over the northwest corner of the park. It used to be a lonesome corner ideal for daydreaming. I have avoided that sector ever since, in the early days of the pandemic, a teenager randomly turned around and punched me in the chest. The pecking order is clear. The dealers pace nervously, courting new customers, taunting the impecunious. A capo with a laser-like squint alternately bucks up and threatens the dealers. The junkies linger between fixes under makeshift tents strung between park benches and shopping carts heaped with twisted umbrella frames and other paraphernalia of a broken life. Every so often, the police flood the sector with bright lights from a portable police generator and hose down the pathway. But as soon as the cops turn their attention elsewhere, business returns.  

The casualties are sad to behold. For a while I noticed a crazed young woman, her brain addled by drugs, shuffling along and after each step forward, just barely catching herself from falling. The vestiges of a pixie-like charm hovered about her puffy cheeks. But any last trace of allure had long since been drained, leaving a pasty white mask of despair. “Please, Mister!” she would beseech with teary eyes and a trembling outstretched hand, until you shelled out a dollar bill to clear your conscience and keep her at a distance. Not having seen her around for a while, I hope she found treatment and a safe haven, but fear for the worst.

The regulars include Larry, the Birdman, an ageless, scruffy, white-bearded, skinny man in a black jumpsuit, judiciously strewing birdseed up and down his outstretched arms, thereby transforming himself into a messy amalgam of ineffectual scarecrow and Christ on the Cross, tapping out-of-town tourists for tribute. He picked up his skills, such as they are, from Paul the Pigeon Man, a plump, black mustachioed, amateur ornithologist and self-styled protector of the creatures he lovingly refers to as “rats with wings.”

Another sometime park regular, a puppet master with a sense of humor, once fashioned a miniature facsimile of Larry, a marionette in black jumpsuit. For a time, Larry proudly walked it around, as if the puppet was his pet shadow, until he either grew tired of the game, lost it, broke it, or hocked it for a fix. 

Washington Square at its best is a zone of anything goes with its flocks of pigeons circling overhead in the sunlight, shifting like an M.C. Escher etching of winged swathes of black and white. If I have ever felt like I belonged someplace, it is here. I pledge allegiance to the “free and independent” State of Mind, of which Washington Square is the unquestionable capitol.

***

A writer in multiple modes (fiction, drama, essays and poetry) and frequent contributor to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Borrowed Words, Cut-up Poems, Bamboo Dart Press, 2022. peterwortsman.com

Aurélie Bernard Wortsman is an artist, cartoonist, and the director of Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York,, where she curated “Beverly Buchanan: Shacks and Legends, 1985-2011,” and “Agatha Wojciechowsky: Spirits Among Us,” in 2021. She is co-founder of the artistic cartoon duo, Zou and Lou. 

© 2022 Peter Wortsman and Aurélie Bernard Wortsman

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§ One Response to “Washington Square, A Place Apart”

  • i really enjoyed this, Peter. it’s been a long time since i’ve walked through Washington Sq Park, and the last time i did, i found it too tidy and sanitized, but may just have been there on the wrong day. i liked reading your observations and the way you so enjoy to play with words. i also love that you and Aurelie collaborate. i remember taking Benjamin there when he was little, as i am sure you did with your kids. and i remember going there on surely the hottest day of that particular August, when Obama was campaigning. i needed to see him in person, to see what kind of a vibe he gave off. he was incredibly charismatic. thanks for bringing back those memories, and sharing your own experience.

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