Architect: Samuel B. Ruggles
Location: Bounded by East 14th and 17th Streets and Union Square West and Union Square East
I’ve walked through Union Square on my way to work close to 5,000 times in the last ten years, and not once have I been able to make sense of the tableau embedded in the paving stones, which depicts the development of the park — there’s always too much foot traffic to linger and look down. Is there any city park, save for the tiniest ones, as dense with people as Union Square? If so, it must live in a Soylent Green future.
Union Square has been attracting and channeling humanity in large numbers since its beginning. Bowery and Broadway intersected there, thus the name. Like Washington Square and Tompkins Square, it was conceived as the focus for a wealthy (and profitable) neighborhood, and it was, for a while, catching some of the rich as they fled from the likes of Bond Street and Astor Place. Then came the decline into a commercial district, an edge of the constellation of department stores and other shops that constituted Ladies’ Mile. (This kind of decline was par for the course for fashionable New York neighborhoods in the 19th century, but Union Square’s fate was possibly overdetermined by all the transportation routes running through it.) And maybe more important than that, a center for popular entertainments: theaters, piano retailers, penny arcades. And maybe more importantly than that, a space for protest and, concomitantly, a place where the country could work out its conflicted feelings for that whole freedom-of-speech thing.
All of these different Union Squares still exist, especially when the weather’s fine, and the Greenmarket’s there, and all the NYU and New School Students are hanging out. It is all things to everybody, which makes it awfully hard to write about without getting all listy. My favorite Union Square (apart from the enduring fact of the Greenmarket): Yo La Tengo playing “Blue Line Swinger” out in the open as thunderclouds bore down. (The least favorite, in case you wondered: screamy truther nutters, fuck you.)
(By the way: I would’ve rather illustrated Union Square with just about anything other than the 1865 statue of George Washington shown above, but all my other pictures of the park ended up communicating nothing but a sea of people’s heads.)