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The Auto-Free Washington Square Park Movement: 1952-58

by Daniel Convissor and Jon Orcutt
Research by Daniel Convissor

Auto-Free Press, November/December 1991

As recently as the 1950's, Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park was crossed by busy roads linking 5th Avenue with LaGuardia Place [then West Broadway] and Thompson Street. A neighborhood-based drive which sparked the support of civic groups and elected officials throughout Manhattan created the popular park NYC knows today.

The story of this successful auto-free citizen's initiative is instructive for Transportation Alternatives' Auto-Free parks campaigns today. Citizens seeking car-free public space initiated the effort, and were opposed by City agencies and other institutions. A trial traffic-closing period was crucial in proving that shutting the park to cars and buses lessened -- rather than aggravated -- traffic congestion in the neighborhood. Finally, although coverage of the issue by a supportive media was extensive, the effort took six years and extraordinary perseverance on the part of the community activists.

In early 1952, Robert Moses, then New York City's Parks Commissioner, Construction Coordinator and Planning Commission Member, finalized plans to rebuild the roads through Washington Square Park. Moses proposed to straighten the roads and convert them to one-way operation to speed traffic. Area residents organized under the auspices of the Greenwich Village Association to oppose the changes, mainly on the basis that increasing vehicle speeds in the park would endanger children there.

Their vocal campaign against the plan paid off. Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner asked the Board of Estimate to withdraw it later that year. But rather than disband, the empowered citizen's movement came forward with a plan to ban all vehicles from the park. The group quickly picked up endorsements from area churches, schools, real estate concerns, hotels and civic organizations.

City vs Citizens

Nonetheless, the City blocked neighborhood aspirations for a car-free park and persisted in linking construction of nearby Washington Square Village, [yet another Moses related] large-scale development, to widening the roads through Washington Square. In 1955, Moses and Manhattan Borough Pres. Hulan Jack unveiled plans for a 4-lane sunken highway through the park.

Public response was swift -- community meetings and repeated calls for an auto-free park kept the issue before City government and the wider public. Groups like the Citizens Union even expanded the debate to call for dead- ending selected streets to reduce through traffic and enhance livability. Community opposition was strong enough --noted urbanists Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs as well as celebrities like Elanor Roosevelt weighed in against the City -- to block Moses' plan. The issue settled into a standoff, with the City (and NYU) arguing that a park car-ban would flood the surrounding area with cars.

Moses' real goal, although not fully apparent at the time, was to convert a large swath of historic lower Manhattan into an urban highway. His proposal would have [built a new highway along West Broadway] linking 5th Avenue to... the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway... [The Lower Manhattan Expressway was planned to connect] the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.

In 1958, a two-lane roadway through Washington Square Park was approved by the City Planning Commission. The accompanying report warned that "closing Washington Square to traffic would be injurious to the surrounding community and to the City." The Commission's action tried to steer between community groups, to whose ranks had been added candidates, local politicians, political clubs, schools and PTA's which wanted the park closed to traffic, and Moses, who held out for a four-lane depressed expressway.

Trial Traffic Closing

The fight took a dramatic turn in October, 1958, when the Board of Estimate ordered a temporary closing of the park to test whether traffic would lessen or become worse. Resultant congestion levels would determine whether the Traffic Department could recommend a permanent closing or an expanded park roadway.

On October 30, 1958, the park was closed to cars (though buses continued to cross it). The New York Times noted that, "Observation during different periods of the day revealed no congestion. The police reported no trouble." A ribbon-tying ceremony was held a few days later to mark the closing. A community leader there mentioned that where the park was once a potter's field, it had now become "a burial ground for certain individuals with antiquated notions of city planning."

Within a month, the lack of any congestion from the trial car-ban led community groups to demand that the City permanently close the park to traffic. Now with the backing or powerful Democratic Party leader Carmine DeSapio, auto-free park advocates swayed the Board of Estimate before its April, 1959 meeting, where it instructed the traffic commissioner (who held that the trial results were "inconclusive") to make the car-ban permanent and find new routes for the bus lines still operating in the park.

Throughout the struggle, the New York Times provided extensive coverage of hearings, rival plans for the park, and eventually, editorial support for the auto-free advocates. Whenever civic organizations -- such as the Citizens' Union, Fine Arts Federation, and the American Institute of Architects -- took a stand on the issue, the Times printed an article about it.

While T.A.'s Auto-Free Central and Prospect Park Campaigns have yet to garner such media support (in the 1970's, the Times opposed limiting cars to the current summer hours), it has forced the DoT to consider the issue and has attracted the backing of Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. As in Washington Square Park, securing a trial traffic-closing period will be vital to the ultimate removal of cars from Central and Prospect Parks. Although [then] Transportation Commissioner Riccio has rebuffed the idea, T.A. continues working toward such a test. But probably the most important lesson of the auto-free Washington Square campaign for our current efforts was its proof of the adage, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow."

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