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Remembering Edith Lyons

Washington Square Park, Aeriel View, Looking North 1950. (Photo from NYULocal)
Washington Square Park, Aeriel View, Looking North, 1950. (Photo from nyulocal.com)

Eighteen years ago, GVSHP had the privilege of recording an oral history  interview with early preservationist, Edith Lyons, the co-founder of the Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic. Lyons and the JEC led a seven year battle against Robert Moses’ plan to extend Fifth Avenue through the park. Thanks to Lyons and JEC’s efforts, Washington Square Park remains automobile-free today. Read more about Edith Lyons, her preservationist strategies against Moses and the legacy of JEC in her oral history interview with Vicki Weiner for the GVSHP Preservation Archives.

Excerpts from the Feb 19, 1997 interview:

WEINER: What was it that led you to found the joint committee to close the park to traffic?

LYONS: It was a one-inch, one-column item in the New York Times which said that Robert Moses proposed to run a six-lane highway through Washington Square Park. That would have required narrowing the sidewalks on Fifth Avenue from 14th Street down to the park, which in earlier years had been widened on purpose to make it a beautiful walkway to the park. Robert Moses, as you know, did a lot of very wonderful things, always, however, concerned with the automobile, which he adored. He had no feel for human beings at all. This I knew, and it was a red flag when I saw his idea. Shirley Hayes was the person who showed me…she was in the park with her boys. I was in the park with one of my children. It was she who came over and showed me the item in the Times…

WEINER: What was discussed at those early meetings? Did you come up with a strategy?

LYONS: We came up with the fact that we had to do a lot of thinking, meeting, talking, about how to get the belching busses and cars out of Washington Square Park. That was the first thing. Fifth Avenue was two-way then. The busses would come down, ride into the park and sit there and belch smoke. Or whatever they belched. And cars would park in there as well. And how do you go about that was first. Second, why shouldn’t all traffic be taken out of a park? Parks are for people, not for automobiles as Moses proposed. That’s an historic park, a wonderful little jewel in Manhattan, and what would be left if he had his way?…

Check out another Off the Grid post about Lyons and the historic work of JEC here, and if you’d like to read more about preservationist pioneers, please see our Oral History Collections.

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