Whose park is it anyway? Inside the Washington Square showdown pitting the young against the restless

DSC03684-2 re
An elderly woman argues with a young adult over Washington Square Park.
Photo by Dean Moses

On one side are long-time residents who live beside Washington Square Park who are fed up with noisy, drug-filled parties. On the other side are younger residents who say the complaints are just another way to gentrify a historically diverse and avant-garde community hangout. 

These are the divergent views of two groups currently at odds over the recent, controversial weekend curfew imposed at Washington Square Park. Following several weeks of sporadic, sometimes brutal enforcement of the short-lived 10 p.m. curfew over Washington Square Park, the NYPD held a Build the Block meeting Wednesday night to discuss recent procedures and to gauge feedback regarding possible solutions.

The setting was promoted as an opportunity for all to voice their opinions and concerns, yet many say they were purposefully shut out of the venue — leading only to further chaos.

The line to enter the Build the Block wrapped around the block. Photo by Dean Moses
The NYPD say they swiftly reached capacity. Photo by Dean Moses

The disparities were evident by who were inside Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine Street, where  the meeting was held, and who were seemingly left out of the proceedings. Most of the attendees inside were older folks, while their more younger counterparts were left standing outside chanting, “Let us in!”

The NYPD claimed the venue reached capacity, which prevented the admittance of the opposing viewpoints, but those left out of the loop felt it was intentional. This led to two unique discussions separated by the walls of the church.

Inside, NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison began by discussing the philosophy of neighborhood policing and working with residents in order to make vast improvements to safety and quality-of-life issues. 

“In 2020, I’m not sure if everybody knows, but we had a little bit of a pandemic. A little bit of a difficult time and we had a little bit of a setback and a couple of other things that happened outside of New York City that broke the relationships that we built through neighborhood policing. The New York City Police Department— we are ready to come back. We are ready to protect you,” Chief Harrison said to a round of applause.

NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison opened the meeting. Photo by Dean Moses

This was followed by a litany of speakers and comments from audience members — including a number of candidates for local office — which described the park as hell on earth.

Assistant Chief Stephen Hughes also commented on the controversy surrounding the way in which officers dressed in riot gear and cleared the area. Chief Hughes claimed that he made the call to evict park goers using this method while responding to a protest that night, asserting that he overheard them state they were heading to the park where they would engage with officers.  

Assistant Chief Stephen Hughes commented on the controversy. Photo by Dean Moses

“The problem we did have was on June 5th, it was a Saturday. We were getting ready to close the park and we were doing our community outreach but that same night we had an anti-police demonstration. It was up near the 10th Precinct. There was a protest there, some barriers were knocked down, some people were arrested trying to get into the 10th Precinct. That was about 9:15 that night on Saturday. At 9:15 we heard people in the crowd saying ‘Hey let’s go to the park, let’s go to Washington Square Park. The police are going to be closing it at 10 o’clock and let’s engage the officers there,’” Hughes recounted, stating that there were 27 officers at the location in regular uniform.

However, once projectiles were thrown at the group, Hughes added that is when they donned helmets and protective vests. 

The strategy to close the park at 10 p.m. rather than at midnight was due to fewer inebriated partygoers and smaller crowds, according to Chief Hughes. He claims that the first weekend of the curfew went smoothly; however, the circumstances around the altercation on June 5 have brought widespread media attention to the issue. 

During the meeting Chief Hughes stopped for a few seconds to swiftly tally a show of raised arms to determine an appropriate curfew time, which he found to be in favor of 10 p.m..  

The NYPD separated those outside with barriers. Photo by Dean Moses

Furious for being ostracized, those outside held their own emergency meeting in the street with a portable sound system that soon descended into a series of face-offs with NYPD officers and older attendees.

The NYPD used guard rails to block off those opposing the park’s curfew, leading one man to ask “Why.” Photo by Dean Moses

One woman who made it into the meeting left disgusted, telling those on the curb what she witnessed inside.

“What I heard was white supremacy. What they heard was their language. We need to change that. We need to go to Washington Square Park, and we are going to take over that. I’m not saying today and I’m not saying tomorrow. I’m saying this as a reference. We need to take over. That is our park. We are the ones that pay for it. We are the ones who will have the park. We will not have a curfew because the commissioner downstairs asked, ‘Who wants to vote,’ and ‘Who wants to have a curfew?’ All of them raised their hand,” the park advocate said. 

A man faces off with an officer. Photo by Dean Moses

She described the rhetoric and pro NYPD stance of many of those within the Build the Block meeting and how the vote to keep the curfew was unfairly cast since not all were able to enter the church to share their opinion. 

“It is our park. We have the right to be there. If you want to say it’s a public park, make sure you meet the phrase public because I don’t hear any privacy in the park. I don’t see anything about privacy in the park,” she said.  

Protesters rebuke the NYPD for blocking off the sidewalk. Photo by Dean Moses

Soon officers cordoned off this second, impromptu meeting with metal barriers, not only cutting off the roadway but also the sidewalks. This only raised the fervor as some argued with officers while others simply asked, “What’s going on?”

The battle came to a boiling point when curfew opponents and detractors met face-to-face outside the church, exchanging heated rhetoric that not only encompassed park issues but also race and class.

As the shouting match ensued while twilight loomed in, it became evident that the age gap has never been so wide and the battle for Washington Square Park is merely the battleground for a war of the worlds.

An elderly woman argues with a young adult over Washington Square Park and race. Photo by Dean Moses