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From Parking Lot to Car Free Washington Square Park

Today is Earth Day, first celebrated in NYC in 1970, and you may notice some of the streets around the city harkening to a quieter era.  Legislation passed in the City Council and supported by local Council Members Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, also make today Car Free NYC day.

Map from Washington Square Park Blog

Three areas around the city were selected for this pilot effort.  One includes the streets east of Washington Square.

In our neck of the woods pedestrians in tandem with bikes only will be allowed on the streets around the perimeter of Washington Square Park and slightly beyond.  Specifically, this opens up Washington Square North, South, East, West and Waverly Place & West Fourth Street running from the park east to Broadway for greater use today.

Many may not know that Washington Square Park once had cars running through it! The Greenwich Village community rallied for years to remove traffic from the park and this month marks 57 years since the park was finally closed to traffic. The “Last Car Through the Arch” is one of many historic photos we have of Washington Square in our on-line photographic archive.

Last car through Washington Square Park, 1958. Tankel Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Decades ago the “Power Broker” himself, Robert Moses, concocted a plan that would have completely destroyed the park’s integrity as a neighborhood green. Opposition to his plan with zero vision galvanized area residents and launched a successful movement of activism and community based planning that resonates through today. Moses wanted to part the Square with a large road to connect Fifth Avenue with lower Manhattan, where he was also scheming to decimate entire neighborhoods with an east-west highway crossing that would have destroyed the cast-iron district of SoHo as well as sections of the old Village.

It took three decades, but the array of diverse stakeholders involved in the fight won that battle. For the first time since 1870, Washington Square was traffic-free.  The New York Preservation Archive Project tracks here the long history of these stories.

Along the years, including today, many community members, need to be involved. One was Washington Square Park committee member Shirley Hayes, her efforts were also featured by Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Photo from NYULocal.

To honor this past and learn from it, we interviewed Edith Lyons about her involvement in the Committee to Close Washington Square Park to traffic.  She died just five years after this interview was conducted in 1998.

Let’s ponder her words and vision as we are able to enjoy this Car Free NYC Earth Day:

“A few months ago I visited Washington Square Park for the first time in a long time. And there were tulips in full bloom; there were toddlers taking their first awkward and comical steps, their parents beaming; there were the children waiting their turns on the swings and slides, and shouting happily all the time; there were old people having a little nap in the fresh air; there were century-old trees in their natural dignity and beauty; there was an acrobat entertaining more than 100 people; there were lovers strolling in the paths holding hands; there were frail people; there were robust people; old, young, of many colored skins; there was a guitarist playing softly who suddenly sang a very simple song in the most beautiful voice. And I thought to myself, this is true, and will be for generations to come, because some 40 years ago a small, spirited, park-loving and park-appreciating group gathered together to fight a Robert Moses plan to destroy this little jewel of a park by running a 6-lane automobile highway through it. If his plan had worked, there never again would have been a Washington Square Park.  

You can find this fascinating oral interview, as well as others, from Shirley Hayes and Claire Tankel who were also involved in the car-free park movement here.

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