-By Sophia Astor
For the little kids, Washington Square Park is all about running around the playgrounds. For teenagers, it’s a place to skate, take selfies and sneak sips of alcohol. And for the older heads, it’s about seeking out a little tranquility for a morning walk. These often conflicting visions for this most democratic of public spaces don’t always coexist easily: The Washington Square Park Conservancy has been working to change that.
The Conservancy now offers 11 different fitness and art classes, shows, and more aimed at breaking down barriers between the park’s various – sometimes warring—demographics and providing some much needed common ground. All of a sudden, tweens are salsa dancing with grandparents and posh business women are kicking off their heels to play some Double Dutch.
“Anytime I watch a skateboarder get off their skateboard to come join one of our programs I cheer a little bit on the inside,” said Grace Harman, the Conservancy’s community relations director, who has been planning and expanding the park’s recreation programs since 2018.
Harman explained that these programs not only help build community, they also cut down on rule breaking and bad behavior by taking up physical space in the park. She said that the children’s programs held in the northwest section of the park helped clean up the area, long a notorious haven for drug abusers and dealers. But the Conservancy’s main goal is that all people feel welcome.
Pitching and coming up with ideas for programs is super easy. Harman says they partner with already existing programs that catch their eye. They also take suggestions from the community.
Once program season (a.k.a. summer) rolls around, all that’s left to do is clear the space in the park and set up the Conservancy’s welcome wagon. Many people are hesitant to join or don’t know that they can, so a friendly smile and some encouragement from the interns at the welcome wagon helps bring people in.
Dino Malvone, who runs a pilates inspired fitness class for the SaltDrop, which partners with the Conservancy, says the classes are a great way to break the ice.
“Our favorite thing about holding classes in the park this summer was that we met our neighbors and made so many new friends,” Malvone said.
Conasia Watts, a Double Dutch coach in the park, said she’s always surprised by who is willing to jump in.
“Whether it was the skaters, local artists, or tourists just passing by, there was always someone who either knew how to jump and wanted to get back in the swing of things or someone who was interested in learning,” Watts said.
Tae Kim from the Portable Museum Project, an organization that holds art classes in the park, says the programs give people a reason to come to the park beyond just hanging out.
“The more people with purpose come to the park,” said Kim, “the more Washington Square Park will be filled with a warm and pleasant vibe, which makes the park safe and healthy.”