On a beautiful early summer weekend afternoon, I decided to take a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) in Greenwich Village. Getting off the 4 at Union Square meant being immediately immersed in a hub of activity – on this day, an extensive pet adoption event, but on other days, Greenmarkets, or a rally for political or social justice causes. Passing by the usual assortment of street performers (of note on this day was a group of older men performing 1950’s doo wop songs), I headed down University Place. Originally part of Wooster Street, this short stretch (from Washington Square to 14th Street) was renamed University Place a year after New York University was founded in 1838. Although the street is packed with places to eat and drink, I found myself magnetically drawn to Washington Square Park, beckoning to me a few blocks to the south.
Although all the surrounding blocks are named after the Square itself (Washington Square North, South, East and West), it is more helpful to think of the park as being bordered by Waverly Place and 4th Street to the north and south, and University Place and MacDougal Street to the east and west. Once a cemetery, and in fact the place that yellow fever victims were buried in the early 1800’s to contain the spread of the disease, in 1826 the square was leveled and turned into a militia parade ground. By the 1830’s, the city’s populace had begun to expand from the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and the Georgian revival homes along Washington Square North date from these times.
In 1889, a temporary arch was constructed in the park to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, followed in 1892 by the permanent Stanford White-designed arch that dominates the north end of the park today. Clearly inspired by the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris, it stands 77 feet tall. The two statues of George Washington visible on the north side were added later, in 1918. On the day I was there, a man played a grand piano (in hopes of tips, of course) just under the arch – I wish now I had asked him how he gets the piano to that spot and away again (and are the tips sufficient to be worth it?).
Washington Square Park is not truly a park that glorifies nature (most of it is paved over), but is more an urban park that encourages people to gather. On most days, but particularly on weekend days in warmer months, it is impossible to be in the park without experiencing several street performers. On this day, a woman was creating enormous bubble displays to the delight of several children, and in the drained fountain in the center of the park, a group of acrobats performed an elaborate show along with crowd participation. It is certainly possible to relax here and imagine Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson discussing the joys of fame (as they did, according to Twain), but I find that Washington Square Park is more energizing that relaxing. Greenwich Village deserves several different dérives, since it varies dramatically from the surreal small town quiet of Washington Mews just one block north of the square, to bustling Bleecker Street, and runs the gamut between. Washington Square Park is certainly Greenwich Village’s hub, however, and always an entertaining way for residents and visitors alike to spend time and feel a part of this vibrant neighborhood.