Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park (41)

This is one of the most popular parks in southern Manhattan. It is teeming with life at all hours of the day. Its proximity to New York University means it is frequented by intellectuals and nonconformists who meet here to play chess, listen to music, go skating or watch spontaneous street performers, and the number of students sometimes make it look more like a college campus than a public park. But that's the beauty of this park, which is a meeting place and a cultural activity centre.

In early 1600, the Native American village known as Sapokanikan was nearby, and the land in this park belonged to them until mid-1600s, when the Dutch settlers drove them out and used their land to cultivate crops. However, in the end they decided to give this land to the black slaves as a reward for protecting the area from attacks by Native Americans, thus freeing them. But there were conditions: they had to give a portion of the profits to the Dutch East India Company and their children would be born as slaves, rather than free. The contract remained in force from 1643 to 1664. This area was therefore known as "The Land of the Blacks". 

It remained farmland until approximately 1797, when it was decided that it would be used as a cemetery for unknown or indigent people. It was very active during the yellow fever epidemics in the early 19th century, and most of those who died from yellow fever were buried here, safely away from town, as a hygiene and safety measure. 

They say that there may be as many as 20,000 bodies under your feet. Want to know another sinister detail? If you look toward the northwest corner of the park, you will see an old elm that was used to hang criminals during the crowded public executions that took place in the early 19th century.

Fortunately, this all ended in 1825 when the cemetery was closed. This wonderful park was created and now forms the heart of Greenwich Village. It also marks the beginning of Fifth Avenue, probably the most famous street in all of Manhattan.

The park has a large fountain, several play areas for children, groves and gardens, chess and Scrabble areas, benches and picnic tables, areas for dogs to run around and commemorative statues. These include the statue of Garibaldi by Giovanni Turini, which was donated by the Italian community to New York in 1888. However, without doubt, the best-known structure in the park is the triumphal arch located in the north of the park, the Washington Square Arch. Designed by Stanford White and dedicated to George Washington, it was constructed of wood and plaster in 1889 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the inauguration of the first president of the United States. Soon after, in 1892, the arch was rebuilt in marble, and in 1916 and 1918 the statues known as Washington at War and Washington at Peace were added, designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil and Alexander Stirling Calder, respectively.

The arch, which measures about 23 metres, also plays an important role for students at New York University, since they parade under it during their graduation ceremony every year. This is quite a show if you happen to be in the city in late May or early June, when classes finish.

The park has always been a centre of cultural and political movement and a meeting place for many artists and activists. Stanley Kubrick used to play chess at those tables.

And, like many other places in New York, the park and its arch have provided the set for many films. You can see it in When Harry Met Sally, it is destroyed by a tsunami in Deep Impact and it appears in front of Will Smith's house in I Am Legend.

One last thing: if you like neoclassical architecture and decide to stroll along Washington Square North, remember that the painter Edward Hopper lived at number 3. This row of Greek Revival houses dating from between 1829 and 1839 is very well preserved. The oldest building is at number 20. It was built in the Federal-style and has Flemish details, like the way the bricks have been positioned.

So now you know. Almost 40,000 square metres of parkland to enjoy, walk around or perhaps even play chess at one of the famous tables. 

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