CATHRYN SWAN, a freelance public relations consultant who wears glasses with thick burgundy frames and her brown hair clipped back in a barrette, was squinting into the sun beneath the elm trees in Washington Square Park, looking as if she were in physical pain.
Taking out a red tape measure, Ms. Swan leaned into the bushes to indicate the height — four feet — of an imaginary iron perimeter fence, one proposed by the city’s parks department as part of its $16-million-plus redesign of the square.
“That keeps you out,” Ms. Swan said of the fence, smiling through clenched teeth. “That is very threatening.”
Marching off past chess players, guitar strummers, baby strollers, magazine readers and people watchers — the usual Greenwich Village crowd — she headed to a spot where benches and trees would soon vanish, a spot where, as she sees it, entire communities would be washed away.
Barely able to rest her eyes on the Bobcat earth mover and workmen digging near a construction fence, she posted a flier. “Stop Mayor Bloomberg from destroying Washington Square Park,” it read. “Who is behind the destruction of our magical park?”
We all want to write our desires on New York. But in a metropolis of eight million overlapping voices, that is rarely possible. Public spaces like parks are a particular battleground, equally prized as green oases and places for personal expression.
And other than Central Park, perhaps none are more valued than the 10-acre, 181-year-old Washington Square Park, the beating heart of Greenwich Village. Through the decades the park has been the haunt of some of America’s best-known artists, writers, musicians, anarchists and Beatniks, and a seemingly round-the-clock distillation of the frenetic spirit of New York.
In 2004, responding to what it said were numerous calls for repairs and improvements, the parks department announced a plan to renovate the space, a proposal quickly met with bitter opposition from residents who complained that their park was being violated. In December 2007, after candlelight vigils, demonstrations and rancorous fights at community board meetings and in the courts, the city won and workers began moving in.
Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements. Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase 1 of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.
For them, the battle for Washington Square is not over. Some refuse to visit the park, or they speak out on blogs and in person to anyone who will listen. Their frustration cuts to the core of the connection to places that are important to New Yorkers and speaks powerfully to the question of who controls the public spaces that many city residents treat as personal fiefs.
“It feels to me like an injustice happened,” said Ms. Swan, who vents her frustration on her blog, washingtonsquarepark.wordpress.com, and conducts tours to point out what she sees as the impact of the redesign. “We can’t let them get away with it.”
Hangings, Burials and Dylan
Washington Square first became a park in 1827. Once farmland for freed slaves, the site was acquired in 1797 by the city as a communal graveyard for the thousands of victims of yellow fever. Hangings were performed there, and later military parades were held. Between 1890 and 1892, the Stanford White marble arch was erected at the park’s northern entrance.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the park became associated with Henry James, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Hopper and other cultural figures. From the 1950s on, the park was integral to the folk-singing scene; Bob Dylan played there. It also functioned as a dividing line between wealthy, genteel lower Fifth Avenue and poorer neighborhoods south of the park, a division that still exists.
In the 1950s, the community blocked plans by Robert Moses to drive a road through the square and wipe away redevelopment in some of the poorer southern neighborhoods.
“A lot of the animosity and attachment today goes back to that great victory against Moses that the Villagers won to preserve the integrity of the park and the existing demographics of the Village,” said Tony Hiss, who is the author of the book “The Experience of Place” and has lived on the square since he was 6.
Despite this substantial history, and despite a refurbishment in 1970, by early in this decade, the space was looking frayed and dirty. Central Park, City Hall Park and other municipal parks had had makeovers in the previous 20 years. The parks department saw an opportunity to replace the swaths of asphalt and clunky seating and lighting dating to 1970 and transform it into a much greener space.
“Nineteen-seventies notions of landscape architecture had been put in,” said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner. “From the beginning, the idea was to try to restore some of its historical character and to try to make it a greener park.”
A Greener Park, and Its Critics
For this latest refurbishing of Washington Square, he drew up a plan that he said would increase the green space in the park by a fifth and include the new one-acre lawn and strips of horticultural plantings — ferns, evergreens, flowering dogwoods — around all four sides of the park.
“The whole vision was how to grow and capture more green space and take subdivided space and make it more continuous,” Mr. Vellonakis said.
To achieve this, he shrank the central plaza around the park’s sunken fountain — the site of impromptu musical gatherings for decades — by about a tenth, or a quarter if an outer perimeter walkway is included, and shifted the fountain about 22 feet to the east to align it with the arch and Fifth Avenue, making its placement more symmetrical. Plans also called for about a third more benches, to 463 from 343, and new iron lamps replicating those from the 1850s.
Most residents accepted the need for some renovations. But when the plan was formally unveiled in public meetings in spring of 2005, they saw instead a much more radical redesign, one that threw up into the air the familiar park they knew. When the pieces came down, the place seemed changed beyond recognition. While some residents were dazzled, many others were devastated, and outspoken in their dismay.
“What they call a renovation is an act of barbarism,” said Robert Nichols, who was involved in the 1970 redesign.
Critics were particularly upset by the centering of the fountain, which seemed to extend the park into Fifth Avenue, thus ending the sheltered feeling that they said the off-center fountain afforded. They further argued that the formal nature of the design — many likened it to Versailles — fundamentally altered the park’s casual, democratic character, and as that it would no longer be a place for spontaneous performances.
“They changed the park from the quintessential hangout space in New York — in the United States — to a walk-through mall,” said Jonathan Greenberg, a 50-year-old Internet entrepreneur and former journalist who emerged as one of the plan’s angriest critics.
Mr. Greenberg, who founded the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and was among those who filed a total of five lawsuits that sought to prevent the city from going ahead with the plan, grew up in Greenwich Village and SoHo. His children played in the park’s playgrounds. When he speaks about the renovations, he is sometimes so bitter that he can barely put his fury into words.
“All that excitement is not going to be part of the park’s future,” said Mr. Greenberg, who has since moved to California — partly, he says, because of his disaffection over the changes to the park.
A raft of other changes were proposed, each seeming to alienate one or other interest group. The two dog runs were moved from the center of the park to the southern edge along Washington Square South (endangering the dogs, their owners said). The scheme also included the new perimeter fence (to protect the horticulture, parks officials said, as well as to help enforce the nightly curfew) and large iron gates that protesters said could be used to lock them in or out, buttressing their suspicions that they were being excluded from their own park.
A sense that outside commercial forces were seizing control of the park was aggravated when it emerged that the Tisch Foundation would pay $2.5 million to renovate the fountain and the surrounding plaza. The fountain would be renamed the Tisch Fountain and the plaza emblazoned with two plaques.
‘They Flattened It Out’
Matt Davis, a 41-year-old filmmaker and dog owner who lived near the park on East Fourth Street, became involved after he moved back from Los Angeles in 2004 and fellow dog owners he met in the square began complaining about the planned changes.
Mr. Davis set out to make a documentary titled “Square: Straightening Out Washington Square Park,” that examined both sides of the conflict.
But he quickly grew disillusioned by the political process that had led to the refurbishment.
“I thought that this would be government at its most accessible, but they were continually told that they were at the wrong meeting, or there were just so many generalizations,” said Mr. Davis, who can sketch the plans for the new park from memory on a restaurant napkin and plays clips of community board meetings on his iPhone. “It was like Plato’s cave. All we saw were the shadows, and we didn’t really know what was going on.”
The ire of critics like Mr. Davis focused on local property and restaurant owners and organizations like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which supported the plan.
Andrew Berman, the society’s executive director, said in a statement that the organization’s position on the plan was “the result of a lively debate among board members.” He added: “After looking at recent successful renovations of nearby parks, including Abingdon Square and Father Demo Square by the parks department, and historic precedents in the park itself from before the 1970 renovation, the organization’s board decided to support the plan in the hopes of achieving a long-overdue renovation of the only unrefurbished park left in Greenwich Village.”
Brad Hoylman, who is chairman of Community Board 2 and broadly approves of the changes, said the debate raised thorny and complicated questions.
“There was an interesting class issue,” Mr. Hoylman said. “People who own apartments on lower Fifth Avenue saw gentrification as good for their property values. The rent-stabilized folk, your regular Joe, was opposed.”
Many residents were also suspicious of the influence of the park’s outsize neighbor, New York University, whose buildings overshadow the space and whose campus surrounds it. N.Y.U. officials conceded that the university had contributed $1 million toward the renovation, but according to Mr. Benepe, the university was “studiously uninvolved” in the specifics of the redesign. “They never offered their opinion,” he said.
John Beckman, a university spokesman, added that N.Y.U. never had any formal input in the redesign but simply asked that the dog runs be placed away from its library and that the design try to take into account the school’s tradition of holding its commencement in the park.
But to critics like Sharon Woolums, who founded the Washington Square Environmental Committee in 2001, the university’s impact on the design is everywhere.
“The park is my backyard,” said Ms. Woolums, who lives nearby on Eighth Street, “but they flattened it out, and now this is much better for their graduation ceremonies.”
To express her concerns, Ms. Woolums recorded a protest song, “When They Tore Down Washington Square Park.” And once work started on the redesign, she staked out the park, hiding behind construction barriers to photograph what she said were bones from the potter’s field that were disturbed by the excavations.
A Park Looks to Its Future
In May 2005, the Landmarks Commission approved the plan for the park, and the following October, at a standing-room-only meeting of Community Board 2, a compromise was rejected that would have, among other things, limited the reduction in the plaza space.
In January 2006, the city’s Art Commission also approved the design. The parks department eventually included some concessions, among them a slightly lowered fence, the elimination of gates and the retention of an elevated stage that had been threatened by the changes.
The last of the lawsuits challenging the plans on grounds like environmental damage and the withholding of information was defeated in December 2007. Within days, the construction fences went up.
Parks department officials insist the transformation of Washington Square Park has been one of the most open in the agency’s history.
“The plan for Washington Square went through more revisions than any in my 30 years working in the parks department,” said Mr. Benepe, who seemed excruciatingly tired when he recalled the months of fighting involved in getting the plan approved.
Now, he says, people will come to love the new Washington Square Park and points to Abingdon Square, another Vellonakis renovation that was also controversial but which Mr. Benepe says is now beloved by its community.
“For most people who live in New York,” Mr. Benepe said, “what they want in a park is to get away, get some photosynthesis, birds chirping, perhaps hear a guitar. They have that now. Most people will not remember what all the fuss was about.”
Yet the criticism barrels on.
Ms. Swan, who lived for eight years at Hudson and Jane Streets in the Village and now lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, still visits the park twice a week.
She hopes that when Phase 1 of the renovation is completed and Phase 2 begins next year on the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the square, she may still be able to persuade parks department officials to save some of the trees or the pathways or the alcove seating that she says was such a facilitator of conversation.
“The biggest question people ask is, ‘Why?’ ” Ms. Swan said. “ ‘Why are they doing this?’
“There was a huge mass of people who fought for three to four years,” she added. “A lot soon ran out of steam, but there are still some people fighting. Though I am not sure a lot can be done.”