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2024 Village Awardee and Regina Kellerman Award Winner: The Washington Square Park Conservancy

The Washington Square Park Conservancy was founded 10 years ago, a mere drop in the bucket of time compared to almost two centuries for the park at the heart of Greenwich Village. Yet in that short time, the organization has had an outsized impact on the historic greenspace it cares for and manages, and thus on neighborhoods near and far. For this reason, the Conservancy has earned this year’s Regina Kellerman Award from Village Preservation, part of our annual Village Awards program.

All images by the Washington Square Park Conservancy Photography Volunteers

“Washington Square Park is unique,” said the Conservancy’s executive director, Will Morrison. “It’s not just a treasured resource for the community, but one of the most famous parks in the city, country, and world.” Funds raised and the hours offered by both volunteers and dedicated staff “help keep this iconic greenspace clean, safe, and beautiful for all to enjoy from nearby blocks to the far reaches of the globe.”

The Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that works with the city’s Parks Department to better the park for its neighbors and its 50,000 daily visitors. That includes regular tasks supported by fundraising and donations, including for the salaries of 14 dedicated Parks employees, a horticultural budget that pays for plants and two gardeners who focus exclusively on this Village landmark, and maintenance equipment and supplies. One of the group’s most significant accomplishments, said Morrison, is “getting the staffing this park deserves and needs to beautify gardens, clean restrooms, activate playgrounds five days a week with our playground associates, and more.”

The mission is further aided and expanded by its significant, diverse, and always growing groups of volunteers. Every second Saturday from April to October, for example, anybody can show up to help in community cleanups; there are also additional cleanups on Mondays following events that made heavy use of the park over the weekend. The group also has dedicated volunteer programs that require signup in the spring, such as one to water street trees around the park, now in its second year; Wednesday Weeders who work with park gardeners on horticultural projects; clean teams trained on specific gear who can come help anytime 8 AM to 6 PM (“sort of a ‘choose your own adventure,’” Morrison noted); park docents; and “parktographers” who love taking photos and provide visual content for the nonprofit.

A third element of the Conservancy’s volunteer work comes from the corporate and institutional world. Larger organizations and local small businesses alike have worked in the park in a number of programs to remove graffiti, scrape stickers, clean up the lawn, and more, with their donations covering the costs. The horticultural team can sometimes require a group of 25 or so volunteers on a distinct project; in April, for example, some administrators and staff from NYU Arts & Science worked to remove non-native and potentially harmful species from the park, an effort completed in about three hours rather than two days it would have taken without the large crew. Over the last 10 years, individual and corporate volunteers have contributed more than 6,000 hours of work to maintain and improve the great park.

The organization’s activities don’t just focus on work and upkeep. The Conservancy also hosts fun and free programs open to all ages, such as yoga, Wednesday salsa socials, double dutch, and storytimes, to name a few. Morrison is especially looking forward to the revival of the sport of pétanque in the park on Wednesdays on the court at the southern end of the park.

The Washington Square Park Conservancy has succeeded in preserving the park and helping it thrive thanks to the support from the Parks Department, private sources, and the community it has fostered through volunteering and fundraising. That kind of local dedication is what birthed the idea of the organization more than a decade ago. In 2007, the city launched a project designed by NYC Parks’ landscape architect George Vellonakis that restored and upgraded the park’s significant features. The effort was both extensive and costly, taking seven years to complete. The city spent $32 million on the project, but they had not considered how to maintain the park after the renovation was complete. Elizabeth Ely — a devoted preservationist, greenspace enthusiast, long-time Villager, and former trustee and president of Village Preservation — watched the effort unfold and knew that in order for the renovation of Washington Square Park to really flourish, the community needed to be far more involved. In 2012, she started the process of establishing the nonprofit along with fellow neighbors and devotees Veronica Bulgari, Justine Leguizamo, and Gwen Evans. The Conservancy was fully set up and ready to serve when renovations were done in 2014.

Washington Square Park represents a much-needed and greatly valued community green that merges its uses as a village square, playground, reading room, campus quad, and more into a single historic site. The decade of effort to enable and maintain a clean, safe, and beautiful space and cultural gem reflects the honor bestowed by the Regina Kellerman Award. Named in honor of Village Preservation’s first executive director, a passionate advocate for historic preservation, the award highlights her vision for preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of our neighborhoods, a standard certainly met by the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

The award will be presented during Village Preservation’s 34th Annual Village Awards and 44th Annual Members Meeting, set for Wednesday, June 12, 2024, 6 PM, at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Be sure to RSVP for this fun and free public event today!

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