A Little Background
Washington Square Park is easily one of the best parks in NYC! Why? It is the beating heart of Greenwich Village: one of the most eclectic, artistic, and historic neighborhoods in Manhattan. On any given afternoon, one can walk through Washington Square Park and see street performers ranging from drum circles to acrobats, from opera singers to Shakespeare performers, or even a man who pushes a baby grand piano half a mile down the street just to perform by the Washington Square Park Fountain!
One fun thing to do near Washington Square Park is eating! Dotted perfectly around the park are some amazing restaurants that include some of the best food the city has to offer. Check out John’s of Bleecker Street(opens in a new tab) for incredibly authentic New York pizza pies, Mamoun’s Falafel(opens in a new tab) for middle eastern cuisine, and By Chloe(opens in a new tab) for the gluten-free friends in your life. There is even a cookie dough store nearby that sells raw cookie dough like ice cream! It is called DŌ(opens in a new tab), and people from all over the world are attracted by its deliciousness.
As lively as Washington Square Park is today, it has quite a dark history. Let us explore!
THOUSANDS OF BODIES UNDER THE PARK
Today, you will probably see someone playing the violin while hula-hooping under the Washington Square Arch but, beneath the soil, there is something more macabre… Believe it or not, there are over 20,000 dead bodies buried under Washington Square Park! From 1797 until 1825, Washington Square Park was the site of a potter’s field. A potter’s field is where bodies of the poor, the unidentified, the indigent, and where those who died of yellow fever during the yellow fever epidemic (lasting from 1795-1803) were buried. People were afraid the corpses would infect the living and wanted to bury them outside the city walls. What we now know as Washington Square Park was actually considered the suburbs of New York City back then, which didn’t extend much further than today’s Chambers Street. The bodies were buried there and forever forgotten.
In 1826, the land was leveled and turned into a Military Parade Ground. When we say “parade”, we aren’t talking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. No, we are talking about a place where volunteer militia companies, helping to defend the city, trained. In 1849, the parade grounds were transformed into a park for the first time. It wasn’t until 1871, however, that the park came under the control of the New York City Department of Parks and was redesigned to more closely resemble the Washington Square Park we know and love today.
WASHINGTON SQUARE ARCH
The Washington Square Arch is one of the most recognizable features of the park. The first incarnation of the arch was erected in 1889, the one-hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration to become the very first president of the constitutional United States. This arch was constructed from wood and plaster, and not intended to become a permanent fixture. The arch was so popular that Stanford White, arguably the most famous architect of that time, was commissioned to design a permanent version of the arch. This new arch was made of Tuckahoe marble, was modeled after the “‘Arc de Triomphe” in Paris, France, and was erected in 1892. When excavating the site for the eastern portion of the arch, workers discovered part of the park’s forgotten past: human remains, a coffin, and a gravestone dating to 1803. The potter’s field which had been out of everyone’s mind for nearly a century was unearthed.
Today, the potter’s field (occasionally referred to as Washington Square Park Cemetery) is mostly remembered by tourist guides who love sharing facts of New York City’s obscure past, as well as frightening guests with bone-chilling ghost stories! Everyone else seems to free prance across the park without worries and cares. New York University (NYU) owns most of the buildings surrounding the park, so you’ll often see university students taking a study break and soaking up the sun.
Movie fans will recognize the park from films such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, I Am Legend, August Rush, Avengers: Infinity War, and When Harry Met Sally.
To learn even more about this park’s fascinating history, book a tour with one of our local, friendly guides!(opens in a new tab)