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Since at least 1834, the incensed and the outraged have gathered in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park and used their voices and presences to protest injustice – while others have assembled to celebrate a hard-won victory. The park’s location is the main reason it became New York City’s center for agitation.
The 9.75 acres that make up Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village have served several purposes over the centuries. Once a marsh and popular colonial hunting ground, the land was drained in the late 18th century and successively became a potter’s field (or paupers’ grave), a hanging ground, a military parade ground and, finally, in 1828, a park.
As the curated list (below) of Washington Square Park protests and other gatherings reveals, they did not begin with the advent of the 1960s counterculture. An early demonstration took place there in 1834 when city stonecutters, objecting to New York University’s use of cheap labor from Sing Sing penitentiary in Ossining, New York, sparked a riot; it was quelled by National Guard troops who bivouacked in the park.
Surrounded by elegant former homes that are now mostly NYU buildings, the park acquired its reputation as an anti-establishment meeting place in the late 1950s and early 1960s when folk musicians played Sunday concerts there – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg were among the performers. The ’60s were the heyday of the Washington Square Park protest. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, it had became notorious as a marketplace for drugs.
The park’s location in the center of Greenwich Village – which made it a natural assembly point for downtown’s bohemians and student radicals – explains why it became an epicenter for resistance, more so than Bryant Park or Union Square Park, which have hosted their share of protests.
The proximity to the park of the major thoroughfares Fifth Avenue and Broadway is also important. So, too, is the arch erected in the park commemorating the centennial of George Washington’s 1789 presidential inauguration. Whether radicals or reactionaries, the protesters who march through the arch are being symbolically watched over by the nation’s first official leader and the spirit of the First Amendment.
On April 5, 1911, an estimated 120,000 people gathered in the park to mourn the 123 women and 23 men who perished during the March 25 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The site of the worst factory fire in NYC history was the Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. Most of the victims were young immigrants; some died after jumping 80 feet (24 meters) to the ground to escape the flames, records the TSFF Memorial website.
On October 23, 1915 – according to the New-York Historical Society – 25,000 women assembled in the park and marched up Fifth Avenue to campaign for women’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment to the US Constitution ratified women’s right to vote on August 18, 1920. Not until the mid-1960s were many African American and Native American women free to vote.
On May 10, 1933, reported The New York Times, “about 100,000 Jews and many Christian sympathizers” marched from Madison Square to Battery Park to protest Nazi policies and denounce anti-Semitism. Contemporary photos show the procession passing through Washington Square Park’s arch.
In 1952, parks commissioner Robert Moses put forward a plan to construct 38-foot-wide (12 meters) roads that would flank Washington Square’s Arch and cross the park. In May 1958, the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic rallied in the park. Preservationist Jane Jacobs led protesters to City Hall on October 18, and the Board of Estimate authorized a temporary closing of the park to all traffic except buses. By April 1959, only emergency vehicles could enter the park. The activists celebrated their victory with a ribbon-tying ceremony on November 1, when, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Claire Tankel took a well-known photo of her husband Stanley driving the “last car through Washington Square Park.”
Threatened by some 50 policemen in the park on April 9, 1961, several hundred folk musicians and their supporters responded by singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’; the cops arrested 10 of them. The protest was organized by Izzy Young, who ran Greenwich Village’s Folklore Center store, after parks commissioner Newbold Morris denied him a permit to play music in the park. The New York Mirror screamed: “3000 Beatniks Riot in Village.” Six weeks after the incident, the permit ban was repealed.
On December 19, 1964, “more than a thousand people,” reported the Village Voice, filled Thompson Street (which runs south from the park) to demand the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. The rally was supposed to be held in Union Square, but city authorities deemed that would have disrupted Christmas shopping along 14th Street.
On Halloween night 1968, the anarchistic Youth International Party – AKA “Yippies” – sponsored a “Come Curse Nixon” demonstration in the park. “Come to the burning in effigy of the unholy henchman of Hades!” said the flyer. That same night, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon spoke at Madison Square Garden. He was elected to office on November 5.
Commemorating the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade – or Gay Pride Parade – of June 24, 1973, was especially important. The Los Angeles equivalent had been canceled owing to arguments over content and organizer Morris Kight’s decision not to run it. Kight spoke instead at the NYC event. The march began, reported The New York Times, at Central Park West and proceeded to Seventh Avenue and Washington Square Park, where an estimated 50,000 people attended the rally. Bette Midler and Barry Manilow were among the performers.
Nineteen people protesting the park’s midnight curfew, operational for three years, were arrested on August 20, 1988. The protests (related to the Tompkins Square Park Riot of August 6 and 7) had become a weekly Saturday night event. The curfew was an attempt by police to reduce the trade in narcotics. “Washington Square Park has always been like a toothache or an itch that hasn’t gone away,” Lieutenant Robert E. McKenna told The New York Times following the September 17 protest.
Demonstrators faced hail and sleet in the park on December 28, 2015, reported the International Business Times. They were protesting a grand jury’s decision to clear two Cleveland police officers in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old African American Tamir Rice on November 22, 2014.
On January 25, 2017, hundreds joined an emergency evening rally in the park in support of Muslims and immigrants. That afternoon, President Trump had green-lighted the building of a wall along the Mexican border and issued an executive order threatening federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that refused to round up and deport immigrants. The Wednesday rally was spurred on by the Women’s March the previous Saturday.
The park was one destination for New York schoolchildren who – on March 14, 2018, a month after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida – joined a national demonstration against gun violence. The April 20 rally, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, caused “thousands of city students” to converge on the park, reported The Daily News.