By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Washington Square Park (WSP) and Community Board 2 (CB2) meetings are manifestations of the agora, literally meaning “gathering place” or “assembly”, the central public space in ancient Greek city-states meant to accommodate the social and political order of the public.
Established as a public park in 1827, in 1958, a public hearing was held to discuss the roadway around the Washington Arch and through the park. Busloads of protesters, including Eleanor Roosevelt, a resident of 29 Washington Square Park West, crowded into City Hall to support Mrs. Shirley Hayes, to eventually ban all vehicular traffic from the park, as it remains today.
Community Board 2 invited various parties to discuss Washington Square Park (WSP) at a joint meeting of the Parks and Waterfront Committee and Human Services Committee on July 21. CB2 Chair Jeannine Kiely and several other board members also attended.
CB2 organizers were forewarned that protesters planned to disrupt the meeting, and they did. It started in an orderly fashion, introduced by the chair of the Parks Committee, Rich Caccappolo, outlining the agenda, and noting that all those from the public who wished to speak would get that opportunity, at two minutes each, since about 45 persons signed up to speak.
The Parks Department supervisor of Washington Square Park, Will Morrison, was introduced to emphasize the need for a balanced approach to enforcement of park rules. He spoke of the dedicated park employees and Conservancy staff who make the park so enjoyable to use. For example, Debra Hopkins, better known to the community as “Miss Debbie” is the NYC Parks Playground Associate/Youth Activities Coordinator for Washington Square Park, and recently received an Appreciation Day recognition.
He noted that the park recently hired or coordinated with social service agencies to provide in-person outreach services to park users, and two representatives from social services groups spoke about their work with Washington Square Park. Sarah Paine of Outreach Collaboration said they provide psychological services and minister to the homeless. Shiante Owens of the LES Alliance spoke of their free vaccination outreach as well as other social services. It was later noted that these services are available 24/7, with call-in numbers.
Captain Stephen Spataro of the NYPD 6th Precinct then spoke at length of the history and background of police involvement in Washington Square Park enforcement during recent months. In the period prior to NYPD involvement recently, there had been a 300% rise in the number of 911 calls there, and a 415% increase in assaults and robberies. These cases have decreased dramatically since NYPD got involved, he stated.
The disruptions began as Captain Spataro was speaking, as people from the audience began shouting questions and comments, despite Mr. Caccappolo’s reminders that they would all have a chance to speak in turn.
Amplified music has gotten totally out of control, with high-volume, ear-splitting amplifiers, trumpets, tubas, drums and singing, that impact both visitors and neighbors to the parks living within 3 blocks of the park, according to testimony from neighbors. One of the first speakers from the public, Bill Warren, 69, said “There’s been plenty of irrational stuff going on. I’d like to think I’m being reasonable; I think most of us would like to be reasonable.” His words were soon drowned out by the protesters.
David “Shaman” Ortiz, 28, who credited himself with starting the recent wave of parties and unlicensed boxing matches in the park, and fellow members of the “Be Outside Crew” ran up to a table where officials sat and yelled in their faces. That provoked an unusual response from Georgia Silvera Seamans, on the CB2 committee, stating “I just found what you did to be very intimidating, coming straight at me; I did not appreciate that and I thought it was incredibly rude and intimidating and I just wanted you to know that.” It didn’t stop repeated affronts.
By the end of the meeting, scheduled due to the necessary closing of the public school cafeteria, several points had been made for possible further consideration. To enforce a noise nuisance rule, the enforcement personnel need accurate, mobile meters that give immediate readings. The current ban on all amplified or electronic music might be modified to fit the noise levels at a certain distance from the source. There needs to be a more consistent enforcement of the endangerment caused by wheeled vehicles, from skateboards to mopeds. Is there room for a skateboard park in or near WSP? Will the drug problem outreach efforts be enough to make the park safe for mothers and children?
These weighty issues need to be shared with authorities, including:
NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner William Castro, and New York City Councilmember for this area Margaret Chin.
Watch this space for further news.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice. He serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, and is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of the AIANY Historic Buildings Committee, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.