As Harvest in the Square, a fundraising event put on by the Union Square Partnership and a favorite of foodies in the area, gears up for its 23rd edition later this month, patrons and sponsors alike reminisce on the good it has done for the neighborhood and look toward the park’s promising future still ahead.
Although the beautiful, vibrant, and clean Union Square Park that so many New Yorkers know and love today — with its fresh flowers and produce at the Greenmarket, contingent of elderly chess players, and never-ending stream of street performances and art — resembles nothing of the dark days, the park was not always so popular.
Just decades ago, Union Square had its share of drug activity, vacant storefronts and little culture.
“When I first moved to the neighborhood, you couldn’t even walk around,” said Vicky Braunstein, a social worker who has lived in her 16th Street apartment since 1980. “It was dirty, unsafe and drug-infested, and it felt like people really didn’t care.”
The Union Square Partnership, founded in 1984, has worked to improve the neighborhood for its residents, businesses and visitors.
While the partnership helped beautify Union Square, helping to transform the neighborhood into one of the most desirable in Manhattan, the organization’s work is not complete.
“With over 350,000 visitors every day, Union Square is ever-changing,” said Hannah Swerdloff, the partnership’s marketing and special events director, “and that takes a lot of upkeep.”
These days, the partnership funds the park’s repairs, seasonal plantings, and seating area additions, but it also focuses on providing the neighborhood with a series of free programs year-round. From cooking demos with some of the city’s best chefs to outdoor concerts and film screenings, the organization offers events to maintain Union Square’s booming reputation, all free of cost.
In order to fund the park’s maintenance and programming, the partnership hosts a few events throughout the year that require paid admission, and Harvest in the Square is unquestionably the star of this lineup.
Founded in 1995 by the partnership in collaboration with famed chef Danny Meyer, Harvest in the Square features offerings from the neighborhood’s most well-known restaurants. Favorites like Blue Water Grill, Breads Bakery, Tocqueville and Union Square Café, as well as newcomers like BOCCE and Kyma, each prepare a signature dish for the event, and attendees can eat as much food from the more than 50 participating vendors as their stomachs will allow.
“You really have to bring it to Harvest in the Square,” said Breads Bakery owner Gadi Peleg, who noted that his restaurant will feature a cabbage and sauerkraut strudel at this year’s event.
“I really get to share everything I love about this neighborhood,” said Peleg, who also owns nearby Nur, another restaurant featured at the Harvest.
“We really want to be a part of the community,” said chef Timothy Meyers of BOCCE USQ, a popular Italian restaurant that opened in the park this spring. He noted that the partnership has been instrumental in helping establish the restaurant in the neighborhood.
“They do so much for Union Square that goes unnoticed, so it feels only natural for us to give back to them for the Harvest.” (All proceeds from ticket sales go directly to the partnership, so restaurants’ participation in the event comes out of their own pockets.)
“The business district here is really run so well, and everything is clean and beautiful because of the Union Square Partnership,” added Peleg, “so we think of the Harvest as an investment.”
Tocqueville’s executive chef and owner, Marco Moreira, had similar praise for the organization.
“When we first moved into Union Square in 1999, the Union Square Partnership welcomed us with open arms,” he said, pointing out that it was particularly helpful during Hurricane Floyd that year.
“The partnership works so much with businesses in the neighborhood,” said Moreira, “and we are thrilled to be a part of their efforts every year.”
“They really build a community in the middle of New York City,” added Meyers, “which is not such an easy thing to do.”
It’s easy being green
Since its first day in Union Square in 1976, the Greenmarket has played a crucial role in the park’s renewal and has been a point of attraction for many restaurants in the neighborhood.
With more than 140 farmers, fishers and bakers now in attendance each week, the Greenmarket provides much of the produce and other ingredients for nearby dining hot spots.
“You can always tell when someone is buying for a restaurant when they order 80 pounds of potatoes,” said Braunstein with a chuckle, “but it’s really nice to see them supporting the neighborhood.”
While the Greenmarket will have its own table at Harvest in the Square, the partnership also offers participating restaurants a reimbursement of up to $300 for ingredients they purchase from the market.
But $300 or not, many restaurants prefer to use the market’s fresh fruits and vegetables not only for their Harvest dishes but year-round.
“The Greenmarket was one of the main reasons I moved to 15th Street,” said Tocqueville’s Moreira. “They have the best produce in the city.”
The partnership has encouraged participating restaurants to follow a “zero-waste” theme in their dishes this year, a goal that the organization has been working toward for several years with the addition of recycling and composting initiatives inside the park.
While some have chosen instead to focus on featuring in-season produce from the Greenmarket or inventive flavor combinations, BOCCE USQ has remained true to the “zero-waste” motif.
“I wanted to use some of the produce that doesn’t get enough love,” said chef Meyers, who also serves as chair for this year’s Harvest.
Using “ugly vegetables,” BOCCE will offer Harvest attendees a pizza with ricotta, sweet potatoes and roast veggies, topped with an apple balsamic. All the produce on the pizza will come from Union Square’s own Greenmarket, specifically from Norwich Meadows Farm, which reminds Meyers of his childhood in the upstate New York town.
Feels like home
Even in its 23rd year, Harvest in the Square continues to draw excitement and anticipation from both its attendees and its participants.
“There’s always great food, and I love to see what new things the restaurants are featuring,” said Braunstein.
“You not only get to eat delicious food, but you also get to meet the chefs,” said the partnership’s Swerdloff, who thinks of the park as “everybody’s playground.”
“It’s really a party, and that’s the bottom line,” she said.
Peleg, who’s been a part of the Harvest for six years, feels that the event provides “a beautiful platform for all of us who live and work in the neighborhood to share our best stuff.”
The Harvest has indeed come to symbolize the arrival of fall, and, as Moreira said, “all of the community looks forward to it each year.”
The tent, which covers the entire Union Square plaza and allows the show to go on, even in the event of rain, causes quite a frenzy of its own.
“It’s an unbelievably beautifully choreographed thing to see,” said Peleg, who explained that the whole thing is put up and taken down within a day.
“You walk into that tent, and you don’t even know where to begin,” Braunstein said. “I always try to pace myself, and sometimes, that means going for the burger or pizza last.”
“It’s truly the best food event in all of New York, and I feel like I’m home when I’m there.”
This year’s Harvest in the Square will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 20. Tickets start at $125, or $150 on the day, and can be purchased at www.harvestinthesquare.nyc.