When one walks under the grand archway entrance into Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, they may not be aware of the long history behind the park that will soon surround them. Unlike many of New York City’s parks that were created by Robert Moses, the history of Washington Square Park precedes Robert Moses work. The origins of Washington Square Park go back to the days when the land that Washington Square Park is now situated on was host to a natural waterway named Minetta Creek. The name sprung from Native Americans language in which the word manitou defined life forces both good and bad. Some referred to the Minetta Creek as the “Devils Water.” The Minetta Creek has a storied history fueled by interaction upon the waterways by the Native Americans, the early Dutch Settlers and the British forces that eventually took over the land from the Dutch.
In the early 1600s, the land was cultivated by Native Americans until it was taken over by The Dutch who farmed on both sides of the Minetta Creek. When the Dutch began feuding with the Native American Indians, they offered the land to the so called half freed slaves. The land would become known as Land Of The Blacks. It was called that because certain members of the Black Militia such as Domingo Anthony, Manuel Trumpeter and Catalina Anthony were given land grants in the area. Also to become known as Little Africa, the land would be used by the half freed slaves to farm and raise families on.
In 1797, the governing body in the city known as the City’s Common Council converted the land into a Potter’s Field. That term was used to describe an area utilized to bury the extremely poor. Over the years, there have been many stories of public persecutions and hangings that occurred in the Potters Field. However, there is very little proof of those stores from public records with the exception of one hanging. Nonetheless, a corner of the park has often been referred to as Hangmen’s Elm.
In 1826, all of the land surrounding what we now know as Washington Square Park was converted into a militia training ground. The area was labeled Washington Military Parade Ground. Parts of the grounds were turned into a public park in 1827. The park would soon become a meeting ground for public demonstrations and gatherings. It would also serve as an escape form the city streets as all future New York City parks would do. One of the most interesting early gatherings occurred in 1838 when Samuel F.B. Morse gave a public demonstration of his new invention called the telegraph in the middle of Washington Square Park.
In the 1850’s a park’s commission was formed to look over issues regarding Manhattan’s Central Park. In 1870, that commission was transformed into a governmental agency called the City’s Department of Public Parks. The new agency would look over all of the city’s public parks. From that point on, Washington Square Park would become one of the most important public parks in New York City. The newly formed Department of Public Parks would bring in an engineer named M.A. Kellogg, and a landscape Gardner named I.A. Pilat to redesign the park. The two men installed curved paths and shaded areas to isolate the park even more from the city streets. As important as it was to offer the isolation of a park from the hustle and bustle of the city streets, the park would also serve as connection between Fifth Avenue and lower Manhattan by ways of the newly built carriage drive that ran through the park.
For the past hundred and thirty years plus, visitors to Washington Square Park have been greeted by a magnificent marble stone archway at the park’s northern end. The archway was first installed as a centennial tribute to George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States of America. Built as a wooden archway in 1879, the tributary gateway would be replaced by the fabulous stone archway a few years later that still stands in the 21st century. The archway was designed by Stanford White. A very similar archway had been built in Paris almost one hundred years earlier called the Arc de Triomphe.
Washington Square Park Archway
Arc de Triomphe in Paris
Eventually, two spectacular statues of George Washington would be attached to the North side of the Washington Square Park Archway. In 1916, the first statue of George Washington was presented in 1916 called Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor. The statue was sculptured by Hermon MacNeil, and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers Marble Carving Studios. It was placed on the left hand side of the archway. The second statue was erected in 1918. It was called Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice. The statue was sculptured by Alexander Stirling Calder. In June of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protest, a balloon filled with red paint was thrown at the statue covering the Washington sculpture in red paint.
Over the years Washington Square Park would host many political and social protests. However the park itself was not the targets of the protests. It was merely the perfect site for people to gather and voice their opinions. One of the earliest protests in the park occurred in the wake of the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Labor unions protested in the park over devastating labor practices that they argued led to the deaths of those trapped inside the factory. During the 20th century, Washington Square Park would serve as a home base for generations of artists from the Beat Generation of the 1940’s to the anti-war Vietnam Era protesters of the 1960s and folk music movement led by Bob Dylan. The parks center ring and fountain surrounded by a few rows deep of concrete seating also served as the perfect arena for public performance. So many were held that the city government began requiring performers to apply for permits to perform in any of New York City’s public parks.
The beauty of Washington Square Park and the towering city buildings that surround it define a scenery that no Hollywood movie set could ever build. For that reason, the park has been a center of attraction of Hollywood film makers for years. Below are a few scenes from such major motion pictures filmed in Washington Square Park.
Barefoot In The Park (1967) -Scene featuring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Washington Square Park
I Am Legend (2007) – Zombies running through Washington Square Park
Avengers Infinity Wars (2018) Battle scene in and out of Washington Square Park.
Depending on what time of day one visits Washington Square Park, the historic park can be filled with thousands of people of all generations and cultures. There is truly still that beatnik sense that infiltrates the park. Additionally, there is a population of homeless people that call the park their home. Located in Greenwich Village, the park is also host to many of New York University’s diverse students. There is also a beautiful residential area that surrounds part of the park.
New York City stands as one of the most historic cities in the history of the United States. If you ever get a chance to visit NYC or live in NY and have never been to Washington Square Park, I highly recommend you take a visit to an a
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: 1995 Yale University Press.