Sitting in the heart of The Village, Washington Square Park is another childhood location filled with fond memories. In my opinion it was, and still is, a “must see” for anyone trying to get a “real feel” for the city.
Again, in easy walking distance of our apartment , the park was a place that I frequented from pre-school years through High School. I never believed that there was a “bad” time of year for a nice walk to the park . Even on cold, snowy days the park offered a soothing oasis from the concrete and blacktop that make up most of the city. Beautifully laid out with walking paths, large patches of grass and trees and of course, the iconic arch and fountain, the park was truly a destination point for those living in The Village and nearby neighborhoods.Not nearly as large or as beautiful as Manhattans other famous park, Central Park, Washington Square was “ours”, and we thought it more intimate and artsy.
Some of my earliest memories are of Mom and I walking to the Park, Rob close at hand in the ever present stroller. There were swings and sliding boards and places to run and climb, all under the watchful eye of mom as she sat on one of the many lovely benches that were positioned throughout the park. I enjoyed trying to make Rob laugh as I flew back and forth over him sitting in his stroller watching, and somehow, I always thought he had fun watching me act like a clown on the swing set.
I hope so anyway.
After our time in the park, as we started our walk home, we could always count on passing at least four or five carts that sold Italian ices. More times than not, this meant a wonderful treat for a portion of the walk home .
As years passed, the walks with Mom and Rob faded to memory, only to be replaced by new memory makers.
As I mentioned above, the park featured large patches of grass: fresh green grass. That probably does not seem like a major story to most of you reading this, but to a city kid, open patches of grass were not something taken for granted and these patches represented something vital to us… a football field! The majority of the neighborhood football games we played were definitely “touch” football events. This was the only sane thing to do when the playgrounds and “parks” near our school and neighborhood were all concrete. Don’t get me wrong , we loved our touch football games in the “concrete jungle”, but , whenever we could muster up enough kids to head over to Washington Square, it meant one thing…tackle football!
We could fall and roll and slam into beautiful grass without much thought of getting hurt.(too hurt anyway ). Playing without any protective gear always brought on its share of cuts, torn clothing, twisted ligaments, etc… but, hey!, we were playing tackle football.
On a less healthy note, Washington Square is where my friend James Lawyer and I would go to smoke our cigarettes as underaged criminals . We thought it was far enough away from home not to get caught by our parents or one of the Brothers or nuns at St. Bernard’s. Still,we were so nervous about buying them and then smoking them. We used to pretend we were buying them for our “uncle”. I now have no doubt that Mr. Slayer, at Jack Slayers Corner candy store knew exactly what we were doing, but he never let on. We would find a park bench and “light -up”. I guess we were around 12 or 13 at the time. We would try to “hide” what we were doing when people passed by, certain we would get caught.
I remember one time a young guy passed our bench.. I still remember
his face after all these years. He was probably in his twenties. He saw what we were doing, smiled and said to us; “Don’t be afraid of people…. they can’t do nothin’..” and he walked on. James and I felt like we had just received the best advise life could offer. We went on smoking worry free. (Of course, we never chanced it too close to our parents or the Brothers and nuns.)
As we matured and aged a bit more, the park took on a new identity … it became the place to be involved. One could go to Washington Square and listen to wonderful local musicians who would never make “it big”. Mostly their music was both tune and commentary . Commentary on the times we were living in as well as the direction the world was taking.
One could listen to poetry and view local pieces of art and sculpture displayed throughout the part on Arts day, etc. We could listen to street debates between self proclaimed philosophers ,or one could simply sit near the fountain and think. In the evening, as you left the park, there were countless choices of Greenwich village bars, coffee shops and outdoor restaurants. People watching was a full time job.
I have not been back to the park in what seems like a lifetime, but its memory remains vivid. I hope that it still offers children, teens and adults all the diversity and warmth that it offered me growing up on those cobblestone streets.