Jane and the death and life of a great American park

Jane Jacobs.


BY CATHRYN SWAN | The community around Washington Square Park is currently debating whether a private conservancy is a legitimate way to “improve” the park or just a “scheme” for New York University and other private interests to increase their real estate values and take further control of this essential public space.

In her influential 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Village resident and noted activist Jane Jacobs wrote of Washington Square Park: “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase to describe this is ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”

To this day, people come to Washington Square Park because of its history, reputation and a certain charisma that the park retains despite its recent redesign. The park is currently in the midst of Phase III, the final phase of its five-plus years of reconstruction. This included the Bloomberg administration’s obsession with moving the historic fountain 22 feet east to “align” it with the Washington Square Arch at Fifth Ave. — which actually took the fountain out of alignment after 137 years in its previous location at the center of the park.

I started the Washington Square Park Blog five years ago around the time the park’s reconstruction began. For four or five years prior, the community participated in numerous meetings with the Parks Department and elected officials, addressing the city’s overhaul of the park. Park advocates filed several lawsuits attempting to prevent the cutting down of trees, the reduction of public space and limitations on performances and protests. The city incorporated some slight modifications to the plan as a result of public input, but, for the most part, the redesign of the park went on as the Bloomberg administration decreed.

In researching the history of the redesign, I quickly learned that the Village community and parkgoers largely did not want a private conservancy, which would change, they felt, the rebellious character of the park.

So when word spread over the last few months of the formation — behind closed doors — of a Washington Square Park Conservancy, those who had attended those past meetings, as well as newer people on the scene, felt alarmed and outraged. (In fact, The Villager published many letters of indignation.)

Last week, Community Board 2’s Parks Committee held a meeting addressing the formation of a Washington Square Park Conservancy. The four women who founded the conservancy outlined some of their plans. They stated that they have “no formal agreement” with the city’s Parks Department. And yet, the new Washington Square Park administrator, Sarah Neilson, is a Parks Department employee who serves in a dual role as the conservancy’s “executive director.”

At the meeting, the conservancy group provided no mission statement and no bylaws for their new organization. When these board members were asked for their projected budget over the first year, as well as the next five years, they had no answer. They said that Sarah Neilson is not being paid a salary by their organization.

In fact, conservancy directors are paid well at the larger parks, double-dipping salaries from the city’s Parks Department as well as the conservancy. According to fiscal year 2012 tax filings, the salary for Douglas Blonsky, head of the Central Park Conservancy, was $456,319. Bryant Park Corporation Executive Director Daniel Biederman made $240,701 in 2011. Madison Square Park Conservancy President Debbie Landau brought home $245,669 in 2011. Aimee Boden, at the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, received $62,745 in 2011 from the foundation, and $122,807 from the city as park administrator, totaling $185,552.

One of the founders of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, Gwen Evans, said at the meeting that they were “encouraged to proceed all along the way” in setting up the conservancy. Really? They clearly did not speak to the many community members who opposed the conservancy, and who — though especially distrusting of the Parks Department — nevertheless saw a private conservancy, as well, as a step in the wrong direction.

Which brings us to a larger question — why can’t our city’s Parks Department run our parks? Well, they could. While it’s true that the percentage of New York City’s overall budget allocated to the Parks Department has shrunk over the years, there is no good reason why a public agency is incapable of properly running our city’s public parks. The shortchanging of public funding for parks is part of a plan to allow parks to deteriorate in order to rationalize the private confiscation of “the commons.” Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, cited the success of one private conservancy in having “brought Central Park back from disaster” in the 1970s as a rationale for installing a private body at Washington Square Park.

Does Washington Square Park have to follow the same formula of private control as every other park? Unfortunately, once a conservancy is installed, there is no going back. And if Madison Square Park is any example, these organizations just take root and spread their dominance.

At Madison Square Park, an innocent “friends” group formed with restaurateur Danny Meyer at the helm. Two years later, it morphed into a full-on conservancy running the park, with Meyer’s private business, Shake Shack, granted exclusive rights to set up shop in the park.

Community Board 5 has complained over the years about the commercialization of parks in its district — Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park — all run today by private entities.

And yet the Washington Square Park Conservancy founders stated again and again that they are just there to raise funds. Elizabeth Ely said, “We have no plans to run Washington Square Park. The city runs the park.” That’s great! But what about two years or five years from now when new board members take the place of these well-intentioned individuals?

Community Board 2 member Keen Berger stated, “Don’t we already have organizations like this? Something is very suspicious about how this is happening.”

I have my issues with the Parks Department — it is hard not to. But I would not take the management of the park away from public control, however flawed, and hand it over to a private entity. While the conservancy says it will not run the park, we all know that money talks.

I asked Brad Hoylman, former C.B. 2 chairperson and now state senator, for his views on private conservancies.

“I’m not supportive of conservancies in general for parks,” he said, “because I think that the design, operations and management of public parks should remain transparent and accountable to the local communities they serve. The conservancy model has a tendency to undermine these goals.”

After most of the general public had left the meeting, Board 2’s Parks Committee voted to endorse this conservancy for Washington Square Park. Only one public member of the committee, Sharon Woolums, cast a “no” vote.

The full board of C.B. 2 will vote on this resolution at its next meeting Thurs., June 20, at 6 p.m., at the Scholastic Building, 557 Broadway (between Spring and Prince Sts.), auditorium.

What would Jane Jacobs do? If she could be there, she’d oppose that resolution on behalf of the community’s fight to keep Washington Square Park under public control and retain its wonderful rebellious spirit.

Swan is founder and editor, Washington Square Park Blog