Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Stories #4: Washington Square Park





     Every university has a quad, an open green space for students to relax in. New York University's just happens to be Washington Square Park. A public space for more than two centuries, originally as a cemetery—some 20,000 bodies are thought to rest somewhere beneath its hexagonal stones.
     Famed New York developer Robert Moses wanted to extend 5th Avenue right through the park—the sort of monstrous deference to the automobile that so hobbled cities in the middle of the last century. He failed, but even then cars could drive under the arch until 1971.
     Speaking of the 1970s, I have grim associations with the park—I remember pausing to watch someone shoot up in a car right outside it, the waxy white arm gleaming in the dim light from the street. It still has its expected cast of addicts and lunatics—one went berserk while we were walking past and ended up lying in West 4th Street, shirtless, screaming at the traffic, while we averted our eyes and hurried on.
     But generally Washington Square Park has a more sedate vibe, helped during our final stroll before heading to the airport by this gentleman and his piano. I never got a look at his face, so can't confirm my suspicion that this was Colin Huggins, "The Crazy Piano Guy" who sometimes shows up in the park with an 800-pound baby grand. It could be him. Or not. When I asked him if it was difficult to drag the piano around, he replied, "What's difficult is the years it took me to learn to play so I could do this," a very New York answer.
    Though honestly, as singular as Huggins is, I like the notion of there being multiple Washington Park piano players, all vying for the same real estate. That's New York for you.

   

11 comments:

  1. If you can make it there / you can make it anywhere.....
    I don't know if it's my Chicago bias (actually a transplant from Southern California in the late 60's), but I've never had any interest at all in visiting New York - until now. I've always seen New York as the rat race on steroids. The city portrayed in the late 70's and the 80's as civilization grjpped by selfishness and greed and the tribalism of self. Gordon Gecko and The Warriors displaying both ends of the same savage extreme of dog eat dog or perish.
    I guess i was also influenced by another Chicago columnist of that time period who once wrote that his favorite movie scene was at the end of Fail Safe where the Empire State building is ground zero for a Presidentially ordered nuclear strike. Which, after 9/11, doesn't seem as humurous as it once did.

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  2. We were there in March on a college visit trip and my daughter's first reaction to seeing the park was 'oh, I can go here, they have a dog park in the middle of campus'...

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    1. That's funny. A few years ago, when visiting my daughter who then worked in New York, I used to run around the park early in the morning and I can testify that there were more dogs than people there most of the time.

      john

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  3. That New Yorkers are callously indifferent to atrocities going on about them was made famous by the 1964 NYT article claiming that 28 people witnessed the murder of Kitty Genovese, a claim subsequently largely disputed. The notion was memorialized by a New Yorker cartoon showing an octopus emerging from a manhole and dragging a passing pedestrian down while others passed without noticing.

    Street entertainers in Manhattan tend to be more like those in the major European cities. A higher talent level than that on view, or within earshot, than what Chicago has to offer.

    Tom


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    1. It does seem apparent from this week’s posts: New York is top dog over Chicago.

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    2. It was discovered, years later, that there weren't "dozens" of actual witnesses, only a handful. Not one actually saw the entire crime...each saw different things. What WAS certain was that many people had probably heard her screams...and ignored them. One teen-ager even opened a window and yelled "Shut the fuck up!" (How New York that sounds!) He went back to bed--while his father called the police.

      The crime didn't make headlines until two weeks later, when the N.Y. Times broke the story of the "38 witnesses who watched the victim die"...something that was untrue. But that was what the rest of the country heard and read...and it spread throughout the world. Most people believed it and shrugged and said "Well, what do you expect...it's New York, isn't it?" But it happened in a fairly quiet and "safe" middle-class area of Queens. It was not a “bad” neighborhood in 1964, and it is not one now.

      This sad story became a story about the unraveling of society, increasing crime, racial fears, the dangers faced by young single women, and the lack of concern exhibited by city dwellers for their neighbors.It also changed the way many people felt about urban life. It accelerated the rush to the supposedly "safer" suburbs, which was later (much later) followed by the "back-to-the city movement" (gentrification and yuppification), in which people chose to live in cities, especially in older neighborhoods, for the sense of community and connectedness that these places provided...and which the suburbs supposedly lacked.

      But why did this murder became one of the most infamous crimes of the century? Mostly because the New York Times wanted to sell more papers.

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  4. Took me years to realize that Washington Square adjoins the campus of NYU, so it really is their quad. One of their campus buildings was the site of the terrible Triangle Fire in 1911. When you wrote about it, a few years ago, it chilled me to the bone. Re-read it recently. Still had the same effect.

    One of my uncles was a beatnik in the Village in the late Fifties, and his stories about folkies and weedheads and hootenannies in the park made me want to become one, too. Too young. Became a hippie instead. I, too, have some grim associations with that park, and the East Village.

    My buddy and I hitched down from Boston in early July of '68, during one of New York's infamous heat waves. It hit 103, and we had nowhere to stay, so we slept in hot, dusty, noisy Washington Square Park. I slept on my stomach all night, out of fear of being groped or molested. I was twenty and dumb.

    Later on that sweltering week, we went to a "crash pad" on Avenue A. Squalor, vermin, and occupants straight out of Central Casting--bedraggled and filthy hippies, runaways, and junkies shooting up and not caring who saw them. Within fifteen minutes, we were on a subway to Port Authority, where we caught the next westbound Greyhound.

    The video of the "Crazy Piano Guy" pushing that baby grand down the streets of Manhattan immediately reminded me of the old, old joke about why there have always been so many great Jewish violinists--because it was easier to run with a fiddle than with a piano.

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  5. My last visit was 9 years ago this month. After the first 5 days, I believed I had mastered the subway system and felt I could handle the city just fine. Also had learned the New York Pedestrian Speed, which is an order of magnitude greater than in Chicago.

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  6. Love the lady in red -- could Dillinger be far away?

    john

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