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American Society of Landscape Architects


March 2006 Issue

Square Deal?
Will impending changes to Washington Square Park offerneeded improvements or impose a bogus take on history?

By Alex Ulam

Square Deal?
clockwork apple

The redesign of Washington Square Park, one of New York Cityís oldest and most popular parks, has ignited a widespread public debate over how best to preserve a historic landscape. For many, the New York City Parks Departmentís plan, which includes the reintroduction of gaslight lampposts and Victorian-era benches, will turn the park into a Disney-like historic themed landscape. For the Parks Departmentís supporters, however, the redesign is oriented toward addressing the shortcomings of earlier plans and updating the parkís layout to address contemporary needs.

Situated at the heart of New York Cityís Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park dates from 1827 and, per square foot, is one of the cityís most heavily used parks. During the mid-nineteenth century, the surrounding neighborhood was the cityís most fashionable address, and the park has been the setting for novels by authors such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. In the twentieth century, its central fountain plaza became a major center for beatnik culture, and singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez launched their careers there.

One of the parkís most enduring legacies, however, is the contentious battles that have been periodically waged over its design. Throughout the twentieth century the city attempted to redesign the park many times, but virtually all of the plans were either defeated outright or drastically modified by neighborhood activists.

Now, the Parks Departmentís new $16 million plan for Washington Square Park, which is in a city landmark district, may become the first largely unscathed city redesign to be realized in more than a century.


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