Around 8 a.m. on May 19, 2009, park workers started pulling down the chain fences surrounding the newly renovated sections of Washington Square Park, including its signature fountain, and early risers in the Village streamed in. Several were out on morning walks with their dogs. I happened to be there, too, killing time before my dog's vet appointment, and quite stunned when I saw neighbors stroll past the fountain. Many looked like convalescents taking their first steps in a garden they only half remember. As my dog and I joined them, curious to explore new paths, shady places, expansive paths, and new plantings, I felt like I was walking into a long boarded up room. I think we were in shock. Whatever I thought about the park's new design quickly became sublimated by the pleasures of just walking through the park again. The northwest section and the fountain area had been closed a year and a half, a time that has felt like forever.
I still have thoughts and opinions about the new design. Throughout the pitched design battles, I took a wait-and-see posture, willing to give the newly configured park a chance. I was never part of the school that the park redesign was unnecessary, searching to justify the status quo through invocations of Dylan. On the other hand, I liked the idea of the fountain remaining where it was and off-kilter, not for the sake of disliking symmetry, but more for the symbolism of entering the Village and its winding streets. Self-styled bohemian traditions of the Village do not conform to an imposed order from the outside, and in that sense, I embraced my neighbors' righteous protests. Some of their good ideas made their way into the new design. I still looked for a fresh face for the park that would instill a source of neighborhood pride.
During the time this part of the park was closed for renovations, neighbors huddled under the trees in the eastern section, and trees provided a lot of privacy. So it was a shock to walk into the open fountain plaza, as it feels so public and so far from private. As the day went on and more people arrived with cameras, the sense of looking and being looked at grew more acute. The park's formal design elements, especially the promenade leading west from the fountain to the west, looks late 19th century, the heyday of the strolling flâneur, and these elements enforce the notion of the public space as public spectacle. I felt under dressed.
Escaping the gaze of the public, it's easy to find the gently curving path that flows along the north section of the park from the Arch west to MacDougal St. Shade plants such as hostas and foam flowers look lovely in the plantings in this area, and with the hotter weather approaching, this section will be most welcome. But there's also a shade too much contrivance about this area, I think, largely due to the new evergreen trees, and the design shows too much of its hand. Yet, I'm attracted to the leafy green and may find myself here most often. The passive lawns look attractive, too, for resting, but I'll need to leave the dogs at home.
The fountain is glorious. Running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, the water features look stunning, and though I had doubts about its new alignment with the Arch, the more interesting alignment of the fountain, it turns out, is with a new exposure to the west. With the plaza raised to a higher grade, it's possible now to see all the way up Washington Place to Sheridan Square and vice versa. Getting off the 1 train at night, you can see the glow of the fountain and the arch in the distance. Glamorous yes, and it feels like home.
Images of Washington Square Park, May 19, 2009, by Walking Off the Big Apple.