When I travel to other countries, I find that I am almost always on hyper-alert lookout for the interesting, the beautiful, the unique, the historical. Sadly, it is not always so in my own country. I can walk past a masterpiece a dozen times without truly seeing it. Take, for example, Washington Square Park. I’ve been to Washington Square Park dozens of times, but it wasn’t until this very week that I stopped and looked and truly saw the beauty in the Washington Arch.
It was a beautiful summer evening this past Wednesday, the city just beginning to breathe easy again after long hot spell. The park, green and shady under the towering old elms and sycamores, seemed especially cool and refreshing as I hurried past along Washington Square North. There’s a fountain at the heart of the park, and its dancing water was catching the rays of the setting sun. The cheerful sound of splashing water mingled with joyful shouts of children in the nearby play area.
Maybe it was those co-mingled sounds, filtering down through all the other sounds of traffic and people and city, that caught my attention as I hurried from West Village to East. Whatever it was, something made me stop and turn just past Fifth Avenue. Looking back, I pulled out my phone and caught the above view of the Washington Arch. For which, I am eternally grateful.
With no people in the photo, the Washington Arch seems almost timeless. It made me think of all the millions of humans who have spent time on this small patch of island – and curious to learn its history. It turns out that, as with so many places in our world, the history of Washington Square Park contains a human rights narrative. Native Americans lived here in the early 17th century before the Dutch attacked them and drove them out. The Dutch farmed the land, on both sides of the brook called Minetta that once ran through area. Later, the Dutch gave the land to freed slaves to create a kind of human buffer zone between the Native Americans and the white colonial settlements. The area that is now Washington Square Park was in possession of African-Americans from 1643-1664; at the time, it was called “The Land of the Blacks”. (See the New-York Historical Society of Manhattan for more history of slavery in New York.)
It remained farmland until 1797, when the Common Council of New York purchased some of the farmland (which was still outside city limits) for a new potter’s field to bury unknown or indigent persons. Most of those who died from yellow fever during New York’s epidemics of the early 19th century were also buried here. The public cemetery was closed in 1825 and the City bought the rest of the land shortly after, turning the area into a military parade grounds. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square Park.
By the time the City reworked the parade grounds into a park in 1849-1850, the streets around the park had already become one of New York’s most desirable residential areas. The park underwent several improvements, including the addition of the first fountain in 1852. To celebrate the centennial of George Washington‘s inauguration as president of the United States in 1889, a large plaster and wood Memorial Arch was erected over Fifth Avenue just north of the park. It proved so popular that a permanent arch, designed by architect Stanford White, was commissioned. Made of Tuckahoe marble and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, this is the Washington Arch that I know today. It was dedicated 1895. In 1918, two statues of George Washington were added. You see one of them – George Washington At War – in my photo.
Washington Square Park has also been the site of countless protests, testaments to the right of freedom of assembly and expression. The first labor march in New York took place there in 1834 when stonecutters protested New York University’s decision to use cheap prison labor from Sing Sing instead of professional stonecutters to build a university building along the park. In 1912, approximately 20,000 workers (including 5,000 women) marched to the park to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had killed 146 workers the year before. By some reports, more than 25,000 people marched on the park demanding women’s suffrage in 1915. Beginning around the end of World War II, the park became a gathering area for the Beat generation, folk, and Hippie movements. On April 9, 1961, about 500 folk musicians and supporters gathered in the park and sang songs without a permit, then held a procession from the park beginning at the Washington Arch. The New York Police Department Riot Squad, sent in response to this “Beatnik Riot”, attacked civilians with billy clubs and arrested ten people.
And yes, even the tireless human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt has a connection to the area. Around the time that she was helping to draft the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, she was a resident of Washington Square Park West.
Like so many others, I was just passing by Washington Square Park on a recent evening past. But I’m glad I took the time to stop and look. And to learn.
The inscription on the Washington Arch reads:
Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God. — Washington
For more information about Washington Square Park: