Keeping Washington Square Park Beautiful

Spring in washington square park

It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The sun was shining, the birds were singing –– the perfect atmosphere for some light photography –– and the proverbial ‘walk in the park.’ 

A fair amount of people were looking to escape the confines of winter in this tree-cloistered haven, but it wasn’t crowded. A leisurely stroll around the nine-plus acre spread was the perfect remedy –– casting off the stress of months spent cooped up inside. From daffodils to Yoshino cherry trees, abundant spring blooms added to the park’s natural charm, now on full display. The sweet smell of cherry blossoms wafted through the air –– their showy petals creating a magical, tent-like ambiance.

Some flowerbeds are populated with seeds gathered during previous seasons. A botanical treasure hunt, favorites like Hydrangea Azalea and Anemone, along with lesser-known plants and shrubs are abundant. Gingko and heritage Sycamore scatter the area.

Efforts to revive the lawn, damaged after years of hard use, are underway. A warm thanks to all of those who spend their days caring for this and other parks around town. They keep the city’s history (and nature itself) alive, providing us with and reminding us of the often overlooked respect our environment deserves. Without them, we wouldn’t have the green refuges New York so desperately needs. Nature’s unseen qualities can benefit us in ways we don’t entirely understand. You can feel the difference when you step into the park, off the concrete-heeled streets. Even in a relatively small space like Washington Square Park, the trees instantly clear the air and the mood changes. Its micro-environment shuns the norm.

“Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man…”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

HISTORY in a nutshell

The park has inspired many writers and artists over the centuries. From Willa Cather and Henry James to Edgar Allan Poe and the Ashcan School painters. 5th avenue ran through the arch until the 1960s, when it was finally closed to traffic. Historically, the park has been a center for marches and protests, from the tragic conditions that led to the Triangle Fire in 1911 to recent Black Lives Matter and anti-police demonstrations.

Named in honor of (you guessed it) George Washington, it was used as a parade ground, not becoming a park until 1827. The statutes were installed in 1916 and 1918, flanking the marble arch erected in the 1890s. This much celebrated centerpiece, now beloved, was controversial at the time. Erected in the 1890s, it was designed by the famous New York architect Stanford White and opposed by Henry James, a neighborhood native who found the arch’s construction and other changes to the area where he grew up distasteful. It replaced a wooden arch constructed there in 1899 to celebrate the centennial of Washington’s inauguration.

Originally a marsh, the Minetta Brook once ran close to the park. Sapokanikan, a Native American village was nearby. In the 1700’s it became the property of the rapidly growing City’s Common Council. Also used as a potter’s field, it was the burial place of the unknown and poverty-stricken. The Marquis de Lafayette is said to have witnessed the hanging of highwaymen on one of his last visits to the city during the summer of 1824. A tree in the northwest corner became known as the ‘Hangman’s Elm.’ 

Its vibrant history has seen this relatively small piece of land reinvented many times. Through protests and several renovations (including the relocation and restoration of the fountain), the park has become a natural and cultural symbol of New York.

Listen to two haiku inspired by the park, read by Patricia McGuire; cherry blossoms and daffodils.

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