Washington Square Park is teeming with ghosts, spectres of the past. And there are also many living souls revisiting the past.
My friend Shelley and I met at the Washington Square Park fountain last week in an attempt to revisit places frequented in our pasts, our “haunts” of Greenwich Village, places ventured on our journeys toward adulthood. For Shelley it was the Café Wha?, where she and our mutual school chum, Judy, liked to hang out, dressed up like Beatniks-black from head to toe, dark glasses and tilted berets—sipping espresso and pretending to be “hip”. At fourteen years old. Later, Shelley performed at Village clubs during the Hippy generation.
For me, it was Washington Square Park where I’d meet my groovy friends, the Flower Children of the late 60s and early 70s. I didn’t really fit the image of a young hippy as portrayed in Hair. I was very fashionably dressed, in skimpy, flowing voile, and adorned in beads, yes, but I tended to lean toward Mary Quant rather than tie-dyed apparel, and never smoked “grass” or used LSD, and didn’t believe in Free Love. I suppose I was the square in the Square. . . . Art and music and theatre were my obsessions. There was also the East Village, 8th Street, the Electric Circus, the bookstore, leather shops, and the tenements of the alphabet avenues, the old Ukrainian area where my artsy friends lived, but Washington Square had always intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the Henry James novel, Washington Square, that I read in high school and the play adapted from the book, The Heiress, that drew me there, not for its depiction of a father-daughter relationship, but for its setting in Old New York. Old New York, especially in Edith Wharton’s Golden Age novels, has always fascinated me. I love the elegant “Row” bordering the park. Today, NYU owns all of the buildings surrounding the park, including the remaining “Row” north of the park.
While Shelley and I sat on a bench basking in the warm sunshine of that October afternoon, the park alive with students from the university, a few performing as mimes and several performing acrobatic feats alongside waif-like creatures in dirty, worn-out jeans and scraggly facial hair singing folk songs to guitar accompaniment and conjuring memories of the late 1960s, I realized that I’ve set three of my novels in the Village, specifically on the Square: Mystic Mah Jong, The Murder Club and Murder Story! The park’s arch is featured in Murder Story:
Many things about the park have radically changed since my youth. There’s a dog park on its southern end and a children’s playground. There was a time when the park was a minefield of dog crap and litter, the lawns mere dustbowls, junkies and dealers openly conducted business, so esthetically, now, the environs have been improved upon. But still, you may not want to walk through the park on certain nights. Certainly not when there’s a rising mist, or a rolling fog from the Hudson River, or there’s a hint of snow in the air because . . . it’s HAUNTED!
Little did I know all those many years ago, nor do the people who enjoy the shade of the yellowing raintrees today, watching men playing chess, or finding relief from the cooling spray of the fountain on hot summer days, that we are treading over the graves of more than twenty thousand men and women. At least, that is the estimate. It may be quite a bit more, because the park was once an Indian burial ground and later a potter’s field for the thousands of Lower East Side residents who died of the Yellow Fever epidemics in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They lie alongside interred criminals hanged from the park’s big elm.
Greenwich Village was established as a residential area during the Yellow Fever epidemics when people fled the swampy conditions and stagnant air of the over-populated southernmost regions of Manhattan Island for the countryside, where the land was swept clean by breezes off the North (Hudson) River. It became a refuge from the wretched and diseased conditions of lower Manhattan.
The famous Row was built around 1830 to accommodate well-to-do residents of the city as the urban sprawl moved uptown. A German cemetery lay to the north, and to its south, the potter’s field. This wreck of land was covered over and made into The Washington Military Parade Ground. A few years later, there was a campaign to make it into a park. As work ensued in its conversion, corpses sprung up from their pathetic resting places, causing people to trip over reaching skeletons and exposed skulls—a dog’s treasure cove of discovery—and many of the displaced remains had to be re-planted. During the 2009 renovation of the park, with the intention of moving the fountain over twenty-odd feet to align it with the triumphal arch on the north side (I suppose it was meant to provide symmetry in the photographs tourists returned home with), a headstone was unearth, seven feet deep. It had belonged to a man of means. James Jackson had to have died of the Fever in 1799, since no one who’d died a Yellow Death was allowed to be buried in any other Manhattan graveyard, but none who were buried in this potter’s field was allowed a marker. . . . The headstone is now displayed for all to see as a reminder of the park’s history.
The Hangman’s Elm on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, supposedly served as gallows. The field was always crowded with onlookers at Sunday morning executions; the condemned were buried in the afternoon. The elm is currently the oldest tree on the island, 334 years old, outliving Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree on the northeast corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue. No one is really sure its limbs were the executioner’s choice, but so the legend says. . . .
They say, on certain nights, one can see the yellowish shrouds of fever victims rising from up from the ground, and the dangling spectres of the condemned swing by on the breeze. . . .
The next time you visit Washington Square Park tread carefully. You know not on whom you tread!
Or, to put it more poetically, as Ross Lockridge, Jr. stated in Raintree County:
“Bare feet of lovers, thudding on the
roof of mounds, press lightly on these
For a spooky, funny read this Halloween at Washington Square get Mystic Mah Jong: A Dorothy Parker Mystery
Until next time,