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The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated

Have you heard that chant, or others like it, echoing off Greenwich Village buildings recently? I know I have, because the recent political goings-on have turned our city and country into one giant public space for demonstration. But in the streets of Greenwich Village and the East Village, this is nothing new. Our neighborhoods’ public spaces boast a rich history of gathering, protest, and demonstration. In some cases they were even designed specifically to cater to such needs. The topic is fertile, and we’ve written many Off the Grid posts on this topic over the years. Let’s take a look:

A 1933 march against Nazism. https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/protest-marches-in-washington-square-park/

Union Square – Designated an official public space in 1831, Union Square’s large footprint on the then-outskirts of the developed city meant there was lots of room for large civic gatherings. One of the first such gatherings was in 1861, in support of the Union Army in the Civil War. This and other early rallies solidified the Square’s reputation as a space for public demonstration, and an 1881 re-design of the park and square actually aimed to make the space more amenable to rallies and other large congregations. The park’s been redesigned since, but it has remained a go-to for activists – from suffrage rallies, to the start of the first Labor Day parade, to recent Black Lives Matter marches. A 2014 Off the Grid post gives greater detail about the history of public protest in the square, and things haven’t slowed down since then. Recently, even the Union Square subway station was a site for expressing dissent.

Astor Place – Another natural gathering place for protest, Astor Place has seen it’s fair share of demonstrations related to issues including police brutality and overdevelopment of the neighborhood. But the largest scene took place in 1849 over a slightly less significant issue – a theatrical rivalry between two Shakespearean actors. You can read all about that unlikely riot on Off the Grid.

The next generation of socially active Greenwich Villagers take to Washington Square.

Washington Square – As the largest and most centrally located public space in a neighborhood built on ideals of progressivism and social justice, it’s no surprise that Washington Square’s history is rife with activism. Just a few examples? GVSHP recently celebrated a 1917 act of dissent atop the square’s arch. And in the spring of 1961, folk musicians were embroiled in the Beatnik Riots. Washington Square was a key site in giving beatniks and other offbeat Villagers a place to call home – and have their voices heard. Today, the Square continues to be a symbol for dissent. Just a week ago on January 25th, New Yorkers flooded the park with messages of welcoming and inclusion, to protest an Executive Order targeting immigration to the country. And about a week before that, I happened upon a “junior rally” – kids from a nearby school streamed into the park, bearing their own messages of hope and love, as nearby teachers used the moment to teach about activism and acceptance. Washington Square Park is also often the site of satellite demonstrations – if there’s a bigger event planned elsewhere in the city, you can bet on finding a group of Village faithfuls staging their own demonstration in solidarity.

Tompkins Square Park – This East Side site is arguably the most famous in this regard. Opened in 1850, it was the prime gathering place for the predominantly immigrant community in which it was situated. Only seven years after it opened, the workers of the neighborhood clashed with police while rallying against unemployment and food shortages. Two more huge labor rallies met with violence from authorities in 1874 and 1877. This is the tip of the iceberg for Tompkins Square Park. In the 1980s and ’90s, the East Village was the beachhead of the gentrification wars in New York City.  Residents, squatters, the homeless, transients, anarchists, and old-timers often clashed with each other and the police. Much of this came to a head in 1988 during the Tompkins Square Riots – read more about them here. Due to this long history, the park is a symbol to many of this community’s struggles for identity and self-determination.

It makes me wonder which came first – the politically active neighborhood or the conducive public spaces? It’s a chicken and egg question we may never answer, and likely the two are inextricably linked. But I can say that I’m grateful for the opportunity to gather in the same spaces as activists working over 100 years ago. The dissenting spirit is strong in the Villages, and certainly shows no signs of weakening.

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