Just in time for our delightful spring weather, the Bleecker Sitting Area, south of and adjacent to the Bleecker Playground, opened on Tuesday, April 3rd. The new park replaced a somewhat dark and forbidding brick paved plaza under a low canopy of Little Leaf Lindens, constructed in 1966, on a rubble filled lot between West 11th and Bank Streets, with a walkway linking Bleecker and Hudson Streets. Poor subgrade conditions, disease and severe wind damage led to loss of many of the mature trees. The placement of benches and chess tables against the high dark west wall did little to attract users. The original sitting area was designed by poet and landscape architect Robert Nichols, husband of Village Voice columnist Mary Perot Nichols. Both were dedicated to the West Village as a home and forward looking community. Mary went on to handle press relations for Park Commissioner Tom Hoving, the creator of “Hoving Happenings” in Central Park and later Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sitting area followed a then current devotion to the concept of a shady dense bosque of low trees above a paved plaza, defining a public space popularized by such landscape architects as Bobby Zion and Dan Kiley.
This new design was prepared by Parks Landscape Architect Gail Witter-Laird, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design before receiving a Design Fellowship from the Parks Council in NYC. She subsequently served as Deputy Administrator under Charles McKinney in Riverside Park. Currently she designs parks for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
As a designer, Gail brought new insights to what she saw as the original concept of the park as easily accessible public space “softened” with a richer floral statement involving such flowering shrubs and trees as Redbud and the heavenly aromatic Viburnum carlesi punctuated by additional Lindens consistent with the park’s original plantings to provide a “sensory allee.” The elongated stone dust ellipse in the center provides both a seating area for movable tables and chairs and a percolation bed to provide natural irrigation for the trees. The East-West walkway is also bordered by partial ellipses enclosing flower beds. The last one to the west, projects into the Hudson Street sidewalk providing a fourth tree pit aligning with the three along the playground to the north.
Perhaps the most original contribution was the use of the pale sand colored South Bay Quartzite paving blocks from Warrensburg, NY, instead of the more historic bluestone or traditional asphalt hex bloc. These not only brighten the walkways, but provide a subtle range of colors and textures to enliven the floor. I asked Gale the inspiration for the ellipse motif. “Something about the gradual curve appeals to my senses. The ellipse or oval stem from my experience as an industrial designer designing spoons for the Italian firm Alessi where I became seduced by the beauty of the graduated curve. I followed a very careful hand made design at four times the actual size of the spoon.” Maybe we should refer to these as spoon shaped beds in honor of their origins.
At any rate, on a beautiful Saturday morning in April, the new sitting area was being enjoyed by many, some at the perimeter benches eating, some reading, others chatting or simply enjoying a stroll alongside the vibrant playground. It is a peaceful, beautiful space and another great success story following the recent redesigns of Abingdon and Jackson Squares.