We won the battle for the square, but now are we at risk of losing it again?

Carol Greitzer, as a city councilmember in the 1970s, in Washington Square Park.
Carol Greitzer, as a city councilmember in the 1970s, in Washington Square Park.

BY CAROL GREITZER  |  Well, we’re all getting older. But while some of us gripe with our peers about our ailments, the newest octogenarian, The Villager, keeps going, as sprightly and energetic as ever.

For this article, The Villager asked me about cars parked in Washington Square Park. I don’t remember such parking, though, of course I do remember cars driving through the park, and Fifth Ave. double-decker buses using the park as a turnaround.

And I particularly remember the night (about 11:45, 1962 or ’63) when Ed Koch and I symbolically pushed the last bus out of the park. Perhaps The Villager has the photo in its archive. I can’t find it, though I know it exists. Getting the buses out of the park was probably the last chapter in the fight to keep the park closed to traffic — a fight whose many battles made the front pages of The Villlager quite often back then.

All of which leads me to set the record straight on one aspect of that fight. I’ve noticed lately that people — elected officials included — attribute the leadership to Jane Jacobs. Jane, of course, participated in that effort, as did most activists in the community. But though she was undoubtedly the leader in the fight to keep Robert Moses from designating (and ultimately bulldozing) part of the West Village as a Title I urban renewal area, and though she was the acknowledged leader and inspiration in the campaign to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway (a.k.a. the Broome St. Expressway,) from being built, she was not the leader in the Washington Square fight. That title indisputably belongs to Shirley Hayes, a park mother who, with Edith Lyons, back in the ’50s organized other mothers and started the loud — and, yes, sometimes strident — protestations about the cars, the fumes, the dangers of allowing cars and buses in the middle of a heavily used park. Once this campaign began to steamroll and look as if it had a chance to succeed, several other people (mostly men) formed their own group so as to present a more “respectable” approach to city officials, in contrast to Shirley’s stridency, which was what aroused their interest in the first place!

My goal is to make sure Shirley’s role is not forgotten. She didn’t raise money; you won’t see her name inscribed on some piece of park furniture, but she did something of major impact. Without her leadership and persistence, Washington Square Park would not be the place it is today. At the very least, there should be a plaque recognizing her efforts, like the plaque on the fence at Jackson Square acknowledging the Armani contribution to improvements at that park.

In the end, many Village groups united in obtaining park improvements, as chronicled over the years in The Villager’s coverage of park news, right up to the recent Oct. 3, 2013, issue, which featured an article on the park’s new conservancy. Perhaps an authentic history of the park could be compiled from the clips of these 80 years of your coverage. Or would you rather hold out for 100 years?

In reflecting on these past events it occurs to me that we’ve evolved, but not necessarily for the better. Back then, with three distinct political forces — an active Republican club, Carmine DeSapio’s Tamawa Club and the emerging Village Independent Democrats — we managed to get together, albeit heatedly, on community issues. Now, there are four women, well-intentioned though they may be, who appear to be in charge of the park, working officially with a park employee.

A major problem with conservancies is that there are no ground rules. Conservancies pop up suddenly, but with some connection to the Parks Department commissioner; they are said not to be really in charge — yet they have a status denied to other park users. There are hundreds, even thousands of people who feel passionately about this park, but now are confused about their role and the conservancy role. If there’s a problem, who does one go to? The conservancy? The community board? The Parks Department? Our elected officials?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other cities enjoy a closer relationship between the public and park managers. Many cities have monthly meetings where people can tell park officials how they feel. Baltimore has a public advisory council; Minneapolis has direct election of park commissioners; Chicago is currently querying citizens as to what they like and don’t like about their parks and how they want park funds to be spent. Chicago, incidentally, pays for parks in a unique way, one we might learn from. There is a Chicago Park District, an independent taxing authority that raises money exclusively for parks. Chicago is said to spend more per capita on parks than any other city in this country. New York City, by contrast, spends less than one half of 1 percent of the budget on parks, even while acquiring more acreage to manage.

Bill de Blasio, who seems likely to become our next mayor, has said that he wants to empower individuals and to involve communities. The Villager can celebrate the start of its ninth decade by asking our next mayor whether he might implement these and similar ideas to give all park users more of a say about their parks.

So happy birthday! Let’s blow out the candles and make a wish.

Greitzer was a New York City councilmember from 1969-91, representing the Village and other Downtown areas. Prior to that she was the Village’s Democratic district co-leader with Ed Koch.