What is really going on at Washington Square Park?
The reputation of the Village’s iconic park has been dragged through the mud as of late — with other tabloids tossing out terms such as “drug den” and “violent hub” to describe the historic greenspace amid reports that the popular relaxation spot has been seized by unhoused narcotic peddlers.
For years, the famous Washington Square Arch and wide-spanning fountain has been a celebrated hangout spot for teens and young adults who partake in marijuana smoking long before it was legal. However, some have pointed to a recent, unabated rise in drug use and distribution amid the usual crowds of skateboarders, busking musicians, and families picnicking.
The reports got the attention of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who on Tuesday told NY1 that the NYPD would beef up its presence in and around Washington Square Park. The park will also be ordered closed at 10 p.m. nightly.
By the picture painted, New Yorkers would believe they are entering a homeless encampment piled with used needles and strewn drug paraphernalia.
Yet, when amNewYork Metro arrived at the greenspace on June 1, joggers could be observed exercising, children climbed the installed jungle gyms, and dog lovers enjoyed the sun with their pets.
Nevertheless, toward the western side of the park, quality of life issues related to drug use and homelessness were far more visible.
Claiming a row of benches, a small group of what appeared to be homeless individuals were seen smoking substances and exchanging money for what appeared to be illegal drugs.
Even so, parkgoers went on with their activities without batting an eyelid.
Three friends, Xander Morgenstern, Eliana Cohen and Aliya Markowitz laughed and chatted with each other on a Washington Square Park bench, while behind them a man with his pants around his ankles slept peacefully. Like most visitors to the park, they simply went about their business, some even choosing to eat their lunch next to the individual.
“I feel safe here but that’s just because everywhere in New York is like that,” Morgenstern said, describing the slew of passed out drunks and drug addicts.
He recalls a few days ago seeing two drunken individuals fighting just a few blocks away from Washington Square Park, and one striking the other person with a wine bottle.
Markowitz concurred with Morgenstern, stating that this is a citywide issue — not one limited to Washington Square Park.
“I don’t feel that people using drugs or homelessness or people with mental illness is what makes me feel unsafe in this space. That’s not what makes me feel uncomfortable here,” Markowitz said. “I think if you look around Washington Square Park you can see everyone is having a good time, and wherever you go there is going to be people who are choosing to use drugs and I don’t think that necessarily makes the entire space unsafe for people. I think that for the most part, people keep to themselves.”
Cohen empathized with unhoused individuals who are being demonized in the press, believing the homelessness issue demonstrates the need for more assistance.
“I think Washington Square Park is beautiful, I didn’t get a druggie vibe when I walked in here,” Eliana Cohen said.
Veta, a mother, sat and watched her children play mere feet away from where some were allegedly engaging in illegal activity, to her it is a result of both city life and a post pandemic world.
“I feel safe, I let my kids play here. It’s a big city, and a community here and they are people struggling and the pandemic has really brought it out. There are crazy people around, I’m not gonna lie, but it’s New York City. It is the way it is. You gotta try to be street smart,” Veta said, sharing that she frequents the park during the day and cannot speak for the nighttime crowd.
Political candidates have often chosen this spot, a focal point for protest movements, as the ideal background for their platforms.
The latest mayoral candidate to use Washington Square Park to host a press conference was Maya Wiley, where she addressed her policies on homelessness and combating it with affordable housing, mental health services, and more.
When asked about Washington Square Park being labeled a drug den, she reiterated her stance on utilizing city resources over police officers to provide outreach services.
“Imagine you can walk into the subway or walk into a park and before you go there, there are mental health outreach workers. This outreach exists in the city. You can go to Staten Island and talk to Project Hospitality, and it does just this. We know how to do it, we just have to align our resources on doing it,” Wiley told amNewYork Metro.
To many Lower Manhattan residents, the issues springing up in Washington Square Park are not problems unique to the area, but a symptom of the Big Apple itself.
But instead of shutting parks down and increasing the visibility of officers, a large number of residents seem to believe greater outreach programs are needed to aid those suffering from a deadly pandemic.