By Sophia Astor

As dawn lit up the sky behind One Fifth Avenue, and water began sputtering from the fountain, Washington Square Park came to life one recent August morning. The lawn sprinklers kicked in, bathing a homeless man sleeping on the grass, while the savvier drier members of his cohort scrambled to their overstuffed shopping carts amid a chorus of expletives.

That’s when the real crazies arrived. Decked out in athletic gear and seemingly unaware they’d be better off in bed, joggers flitted past the trash, sprawled-out crackheads were seemingly unconcerned about the ungodly hour. I stared in disbelief, and counted down the minutes until my favorite bakery opened and I could buy myself a coffee.

Since I write about Washington Square Park, I decided to spend an entire day there, to get a sense of its ebb and flow and really understand the park’s rhythms. At times it was more than I had bargained for.

By 8:00 a.m. I’d had my coffee. The park’s cleaners were still picking up trash and scrubbing down benches, some chess players and musicians began to claim their spots, a grizzled older man strummed his guitar before a group of homeless people who paid him little mind. “I don’t play for money, I play to give them whatever peace I can,” said the man who would identify himself only as Paul. His friend Uros Markovic, sitting beside a drum kit, elaborated: “We are the agents of love in this park.”

The police showed up around 9:00 a.m. and their presence brought in a whiter, wealthier crowd of mothers with babies in strollers, early rising tourists, and dog walkers. Still, the park seemed kind of empty; and as the day progressed I realized most of the vendors were gone. Debbie Boar, who sells earrings, explained that the cops were now cracking down on anyone who wasn’t selling art. That’s why she was calling her earrings sculptures. “I thought I knew this park, and then I started selling here,” said Boar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years but only recently began working in the park. “Now I know all the homeless people, all the little fights that happen.”

BERNARDO MANZOLILLO AND HAYLIN DAVIS HANGING OUT at Washington Square Park. Photo by Sophia Astor.

As the day progressed, the park filled with musicians, photo-snapping tourists, and NYU tours. Groups of friends filled the benches and lawns and, at one point, models repping the futuristic clothing brand Phenotype put on an impromptu fashion show.

“I think Kanye West is here,” whispered someone behind me. He wasn’t.

Evening came, and with it, more vendors, including Salem Coste and Josephine Lappe, two teenage girls selling old clothes, until they were kicked out by park rangers.

“We don’t sell much unless we’re here for like six hours,” said Lappe, “but we usually get kicked out before that. It happens all the time.”

The weed dealers, only a few feet away, however, were left alone.

As the sun began to set, smoke and music filled the park, along with entertainers and extroverts. Some people put on light shows for the crowds, and a man riding a unicycle tried hard to avoid any collisions.

Around midnight I started home. But I knew that in a few hours the sprinklers would turn back on and the mess would be swept away again. It reminded me of an old song by Melvin Van Peebles: “No it ain’t some kind of ill wind, No, it ain’t the world coming to an end, Just the apple stretching and yawning, just morning, New York putting its feet on the floor.”

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