175 years of making history at Downtown crossroads


By Catherine Shu

Karl Michael Emyrs begins each of his weekly walking tours of Union Sq. by clearing up the biggest misconception about the park. Many people, even seasoned New Yorkers, believe that Union Sq. was either named for the many labor unions that were once based there, or the recruiting station for the Union Army that built in the park during the Civil War.

“Even The New York Times got it wrong,” sighed Emyrs, “But neither is true.”

While the recruiting station and labor unions did exist, the square was so named because it represented the union of Bloomingdale St., now Broadway, at the north of the park and the Bowery, now Fourth Ave., in the south.

The confusion over the origin of the square’s name, however, illustrates the significance it holds in New York City’s history. For many years, Union Sq. Park was known as the city’s Speaker’s Corner, where immigrants and the working class gathered to make their voices heard. In the 1970s, the park deteriorated as the rest of the city went into an economic nosedive, but the park’s dramatic revitalization in the 1980s and 1990s served as an inspiration for communities throughout the five boroughs. Once again, New Yorkers gather in the square to shop, protest or, as they did in the days after 9/11, seek comfort from one another.

Union Sq. is the hub of Downtown New York, unifying Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the East Village, the Flatiron District and Gramercy Park. Like Times Sq., Emyrs noted, Union Sq. has never been a bona fide square.

When the State Legislature was laying out the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which organized New York City’s streets into a neat grid, it united Bloomingdale St. and the Bowery by cobbling together an awkwardly shaped isosceles triangle then known as Union Pl.

In the 1830s, the city, with the help of developer Samuel Ruggles, reshaped the triangle into a more manageable oval design and rechristened it Union Sq. During the 1820s and 1830s, New York City’s population doubled in just 20 years and Union Sq. became an exclusive residential neighborhood as New Yorkers began to move north to get away from the crowds of incoming immigrants settling in Lower Manhattan.

Frederick Law Olmsted oversaw a redesign of Union Sq. Park in the 1870s. By then, Union Sq. was a mecca for the rich and famous and a part of the upscale Ladies’ Mile shopping district, which started on Eighth St. and branched out onto Broadway, and Fifth and Sixth Aves.

As the rich of New York City continued to move north, however, the upscale department stores were gradually replaced with discount emporiums and five-and-dimes, such as S. Klein, which was housed in the building on Union Sq. E. between 15th and 16th Sts. that until recently held a Toys ’R’ Us. Union Sq., however, was more than a center for bargains and cheap goods.

It became a civic center for the city’s left, as well its working class and immigrants. Union Sq. was home to the Communist Party’s national headquarters, the radical Yiddish newspaper Freiheit and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The last headquarters of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that had dominated city politics for nearly a century, was located in what is now the New York Film Academy. Amalgamated Bank, the nation’s first labor-owned bank, still occupies a building on 15th St. and Union Sq. W.

For decades before, however, Union Sq. had already been known as the city’s “Speaker’s Corner.” On Sept. 5, 1882, 25,000 marchers gathered in support of an eight-hour workday and a ban on child labor in what became America’s first Labor Day parade. Through the first half of the 20th century, Union Sq. continued to be the scene of myriad demonstrations — and frequent clashes with police.

One of the most significant riots was on March 6, 1930, when a demonstration against unemployment turned into a free-for-all after the police prevented protestors from marching down to City Hall. The melee, which was immortalized in a famous 1947 painting by Peter Hopkins, resulted in 100 injuries, 13 arrests and pressure on city officials to allow freedom of assembly in the square.

“The square was the one spot where people could talk about anarchism or communism and not go to jail. Every society needs at least one spot like that,” said Alfred Pommer, owner of New York City Cultural Walking Tours and a student of U.S. labor history. “What started as a union of roadways became, symbolically, a good place for people to unite.”

By 1943, however, Tammany Hall had shut down for good and many of the labor unions and political parties relocated to other locations in the city. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Union Sq. Park had become known as “Needle Park” and was synonymous with crime and drug use.

“There were people who said that Union Sq. Park was where you could get the best drugs,” said Rob Walsh, executive director of the 14th Street-Union Square Business Improvement District from 1989 to 1997.

When S. Klein’s closed in 1975, the area was so unattractive to business owners that the building remained empty for more than a decade. Walsh, now commissioner of the city’s Department of Small Business Services, credits the revitalization of the park to intrepid small business owners like Danny Meyer, who opened his popular Union Square Cafe in 1985 when “the square wasn’t a cool place to be,” and the farmers who helped start the Union Sq. Greenmarket in 1976.

But the single most important factor in Union Sq.’s revitalization, Walsh says, was the building of Zeckendorf Towers, the massive brick structure at the corner of Park Ave. S. and 14th St. that houses over 650 apartments, a Food Emporium and the Beth Israel Medical Center. The building complex was met with controversy when it was first proposed in the early 1980s by developer William Zeckendorf Jr.

“People didn’t like the color of the brick, they didn’t like the idea of gentrification,” said Walsh, “But what the Zeckendorf Towers did was bring in thousands of new residents to the park.”

Residents and community activists began to put pressure on the city to renovate the square. Sweet 14th, dedicated to the restoration of the park, was created in 1976 and in the following years both the 14th Street Local Development Corporation and the 14th Street-Union Square BID were founded. In 2004, the BID and L.D.C. united under the name Union Square Partnership.

In 1983, the city began a $3.6 million renovation of the park. The new lighting fixtures, walkways and removal of overgrown shrubbery, Walsh said, discouraged drug dealers and made the park more family-friendly. Retailers, including Barnes and Nobles, Circuit City and Virgin Records, began to move in, restoring Union Sq.’s status as one of the city’s chief commercial hubs.

The city and the Union Square Partnership also began to invest in public art for the square. Union Sq. Park hosts Summer in the Square, a series of free performances on the center lawn, every summer. In 1999, the massive “Metronome” by artists Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel, was installed at 1 Union Sq. S., where it has kept track of time ever since (or, in the past few weeks, the days left until the Olympic Committee decides on the 2012 host city.)

Union Sq. is where the history of New York City, both good and bad, truly comes alive, said Emyrs, who has led walking tours of the square under the auspices of the BID and now the Partnership for the past 10 years. Emyrs noted that most tour groups bypass the square on their way to Lower Manhattan, Times Sq. or Madison Sq. Garden. As a result, “everyone you see here is probably a real New Yorker,” said Emyrs, gesturing around the park. “This is where the real New York is.”