Washington Square Park
Location: Situated between Washington Square North, East, South, and West
If you’re not in a generous mood, a park in New York City can seem just a plot of land pretending to be nature unmediated. Washington Square’s authenticity is even more vexing than usual: it’s a park pretending it’s not a graveyard.
In 1797, the eastern two-thirds of the park was set up as a cemetery for the unknown and indigent. Well, that was the intent. As we saw from our previous Greenwich Village entry, it was not yet understood that yellow fever was spread via mosquitos rather than foul-smelling “miasmas,” so victims of the disease (rich and poor) ended up being buried here as well, far from the city proper. There was also at least one public execution. Contrary to legend, it probably wasn’t at the tall tree to the left in our photo, the Hangman’s Elm — which at at 300+ years, is possibly Manhattan’s oldest tree.
After twenty-eight years and an astounding 20,000 corpses, somehow New Yorkers put aside their squeamishness and transformed the site (along some land to the west) into a parade ground, and then in 1828, a park proper. In the next decade, the park would anchor a new, chic neighborhood for the rich and their Greek Revival homes. Even when motor traffic snaked its way through the park and under Stanford White’s memorial arch, even when Greenwich Village turned bohemian, the park and environs never quite shook its reputation for possessing (as Henry James put it) “a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city.”
New York University also set up shop here in the 1830s, and the park’s never been able to shake off that, either: they own quite a lot of property around the park. Plus, every single time I come here, somebody assumes I’m a student (or jeez, a professor) and offers to sell me weed. Are you fucking kidding me?