Crackdowns in Washington Square Park, Then and Now

Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in New York City was one of the two epicenters of the youth movement of the middle to late 1960s and the early 1970s, the other being the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. I knew the Village and the park intimately since I was a graduate student at New York University during that era and the park was my next-door neighbor.

The park had long been the center for the avant-garde. The beats gathered there in the 1940s and 1950s, as did folk musicians of all levels of talent from the well-known to the Johnny-(and Jane) come-lately guitar strummer. But it was in the 1960s and early 1970s that the park skyrocketed in popularity among the swelling numbers of baby boomers who had come of age and who created the “turn on, tune in drop out” lifestyle, and variations on that theme and serious members of the Vietnam-era peace movement.

Being in the park during the 1960s and 1970s was like living the dream of the counterculture. On any afternoon during the warmer months, the park would swell with kids from all over the five boroughs of New York City and from New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester County and beyond. The fragrance of marijuana permeated the air while kids played guitars at all levels of competency and wine flasks were a common clothing statement, as was hippie garb. Bands and accomplished musicians dotted the park as they do now, and their sounds often mingled with one another. Everywhere there were soap-box speakers and demonstrations and political gatherings and marches often took place in the park or began or ended there as they often do today. The park was the first time I heard the wonderful sound of steel drums that became a standard instrument of Reggae.

Over the past several months the park has allegedly become a flash point, as accusations mounted about an influx in the park by drug dealers and sex workers. Some neighbors of the park complained about noise levels that were intolerable, as activity in the park continued after the closing time of 10 PM. As the curfew was set to change to 12 AM on a recent weekend, “police in riot gear” (“Police in Riot Gear Clear Washington Square Park After Curfew,” New York Times, June 8, 2021) swept through the park making arrests and breaking up the crowd. A video in the New York Times shows many people celebrating and dancing after the curfew.

Arguments can be made to support any point of view about what happens in the park and how rules are enforced there (“Violence and chaos continues to overrun Washington Square Park,” New York Post, June 12, 2021). Criticisms of both the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and lax enforcement by New York City police were many, as were the criticisms of overzealous police in riot gear.

In the New York Post article cited above, two violent incidents that took place at the periphery of the park (one incident took place at a restaurant about two blocks from the park on West Fourth Street) were juxtaposed with incidents in the park that resulted in the police presence and arrests. Those who know the history of the police and minority groups with a presence in the Village need to recall the police riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 that launched the modern gay rights movement.

The Stonewall Inn is only a few short blocks from Washington Square Park in the West Village and that site is now an honored place in history. It was an example of people standing up to the police for their dignity and rights as human beings. Now, after the pandemic had all but stopped community celebrations, people wanted to claim their right to come together once again. Perhaps drug users and some overzealous folks have chosen Washington Square Park, but there are better ways of diffusing community issues than with a mass presence of police. That many of society’s woes find a place on the streets is not surprising in a pervasive environment of ultraconservatism. The West Village long ago fell to the juggernaut of gentrification and New York University has a huge presence there, but so do people wanting to claim and reclaim this iconic spot for themselves.

I contacted a musician who frequently plays in Washington Square Park for a comment on the recent situation in the park and that person responded that his attitude toward the recent events was a “humanitarian” one. He did not respond to a follow-up contact to elaborate on what the nature of a humanitarian response would be.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).