Our oral history collection contains many incredibly compelling stories about our neighborhoods’ histories, told from a first-person perspective by those who were in the center of the action. Perhaps no one was more central to one of the most epochal battles in our neighborhood — the David vs. Goliath fight to prevent a highway from going through Washington Square — than Edith Lyons, who shared her own personal perspective and involvement in her oral history with Village Preservation.
In 1952, when news broke of Robert Moses’ proposal to develop a six-lane roadway through Washington Square , Edith was with her children on one of their daily visits to the park. Shirley Hayes, who would eventually lead the JEC, or Joint Emergency Committee to Save Washington Square Park, had brought over her copy of the New York Times to share the “one-inch, one-column” item detailing Moses’ plan.
Like many, Lyons was infuriated by this proposal. One of her first moves was to contact Jane Jacobs, whom she knew through local civic activities, to discuss their options. Lyons made other calls to her fellow community members, and in the Spring of 1952, the fight to “Save the Square” took off in her living room.
The goal of the group was simple: to protect and preserve Washington Square Park, considered one of the most treasured “jewels” of Greenwich Village. The objective of the committee was to not only stop Moses’ plan to run a highway through the park; much more ambitiously, it was to remove all traffic from the park. At the time, the park was open to buses and cars, many of which would sit in the middle of the square and release fumes into the air. However, they determined that parks were for people; if Moses got his way, the park would no longer really be a park, and the Village would lose one of its central, historic green spaces.
The JEC would grow in prominence, eventually reaching out to Eleanor Roosevelt to garner her support for their campaign and request her appearance at the City Planning Commission. With Roosevelt behind them, the committee would receive enough support from the neighborhood to initiate a partnership with Tammany Hall’s Democratic party leader, Carmine DeSapio.
With backing from DeSapio and an appearance from Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyons, and the JEC devised the plan to get 30,000 signatures in the Village to close the park to all but emergency traffic. The public relations blitz that followed, all orchestrated by Lyons, included various bits, from the design of parasols used by petitioners in the park to the golden key used to symbolically lock up Washington Square. Eventually the committee got their way; Lyons would remember the vote that closed Washington Square Park to traffic, and the following “grand closing” that solidified all they had accomplished in 1959.
Lyons was one of many early preservation heroes that established protections for Greenwich Village and beyond. You can learn more about these figures from our Oral Histories on Doris Diether, Jane Jacobs, and Leticia Kent.