Posts Tagged ‘Washington Square Park’

The Hulk passes through Washington Square Park in The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 381, 1993

The Hulk passes through Washington Square Park in The Amazing Spider-Man, issue 381, 1993

Ta-Nehisi Coates hit the nail on the head when he said, “Comics are so often seen as the province of white geeky nerds. But, more broadly, comics are  the literature of outcasts, of pariahs, of Jews, of gays, of blacks. It’s really no mistake that we saw ourselves in Doom, Magneto or Rogue.” Since their inception, comic books have been a place for fantasy, wish fulfillment and political commentary. Much like science fiction, a genre decades old by the time comic books became popular in the United States, comic books often reflected the fringes of American society. They told the stories of outcasts and aliens, people who didn’t step in time with the rest of humanity. It’s unsurprising that someone like William Moulton Marston, psychologist and creator of Wonder Woman, would find himself so drawn to the medium.

This phenomenal development of a national comics addiction puzzles professional educators and leaves the literary critics gasping. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self.”

Front page to The Sound of Her Wings from Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, Issue 8, 1991.

Front page to The Sound of Her Wings from Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, Issue 8, 1991.

Marston wrote this for a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, a year after Wonder Woman debuted in her first solo book, Sensation Comics. He was a blacklisted psychologist who lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women, Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway. All three worked, wrote and helped raise their four children. A self-identified feminist, Marston infused Wonder Woman with his politics, hoping to create a new feminine ideal. Perhaps, then, it is even less surprising that Marston’s inspiration was found largely in the radical communities of Greenwich Village.
Wonder Woman was not the only superhero to have passed through the Village. Comic book writers and artists have been sending their characters to the quintessential home of radical counterculture for decades. Wonder Woman herself lived in the Village in the sixties and seventies. Madame Xanadu, a sorceress based on the Arthurian legend of Nimue, had her salon on Chrystie Street. Peter Parker, that most relatable of high school geeks and New York native, swung through the Village regularly. Kyle Radnor, one of the iterations of the Green Lantern, was an artist whose studio was in a Greenwich Village loft. It made sense to place these characters here. Like the folk music that permeated the Village in the 1950’s and 60’s, comic books told stories  that were always meant for the common person, but also for those who didn’t quite feel like they were in sync with the rest of the world. People found shelter in the Village, and it was no different on the pages of Spider-Man or Wonder Woman.

A shadowy figure approaches the Sanctum Sanctorum, home of Doctor Stephen Strange, which first appeared in Strange Tales, issue 116, 1951. The Sanctum existed in multiple dimensions, but the front door was on Bleecker Street.

A shadowy figure approaches the Sanctum Sanctorum, home of Doctor Stephen Strange, which first appeared in Strange Tales, issue 116, 1951. The Sanctum existed in multiple dimensions, but the front door was on Bleecker Street.

Outside comic books, Greenwich Village was home to people like socialist writer Max Eastman, who published Child of the Amazons and Other Poems in 1913. Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland, a utopian novel about an egalitarian world without men, in her magazine Forerunner in 1915. Clearly Amazonian society had been on the minds of many Village feminists, not just Martson’s.
Because of their format, and their intended audiences, comic book creators had room to do the daring, to challenge social mores. Sometimes they didn’t succeed, and often they ended up just reproducing the same prejudices they were attempting to subvert. Despite the efforts of people like Marston, the comic book industry has been dominated by white men, its path dictated by what they think their audience of white teenage males want to see. But comic books still have their roots in counterculture, and are so identified with bohemian Greenwich Village that author Michael Chabon set much of his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Claythere. His characters, Joe, Sammy and Rosa, called the Village home, often finding refuge there through a storm of homophobia, sexism and anti-semitism.
Supergirl is sent to the Village to speak to Madame Xanadu in Wonder Woman, issue 292, 1982

Supergirl is sent to the Village to speak to Madame Xanadu in Wonder Woman, issue 292, 1982

Comic books have certainly changed over the years, and so has the Village, but their shared history continues to draw people for similar reasons. They have the ability to show us our fantasies and desires, reflecting them back to us for better or worse. Idealists, radicals, outcasts and sometimes just lonely kids looking for companionship – those are the people who still hold comic books closest, and comic book creators owe much of that to the influence of the Village.

Related Reading:

Gaiman, Neil. Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Random House Publishing, 2000.

Daniels, Les. Wonder Woman: The Life and Times of the Amazon Princess: The Complete Story. San Francisco: Titan Books, 2000.

Schwartz, Judith. Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940. Norwich, Vermont: New Victoria Publishers, 1986.



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One of the exhibits created by students in the Creating Digital History course:

Before the Park: Early History of Washington Square

by Alyssa DesRochers

At the heart of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park is a prominent and popular public space in lower Manhattan. Villagers fill the beautiful park to play, work, and gather around the fountain or iconic Washington Arch. But long before the park was officially dedicated as a city public place in 1826, many diverse groups inhabited the area and utilized it for different purposes. Washington Square’s history contains explorations and conflicts, celebrations and executions. Some remnants of this past can still be seen, and its interesting history helped shape the park and surrounding streets into the Washington Square we know today.

Go to exhibit.

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My family has a sort of history with the chess tables in Washington Square Park—some few decades ago, a cousin was arrested there for a dark and heinous crime! This story was my first introduction to the world of chess in the park, and as you may imagine, it has sparked my interest and imagination. Now that I’m attending NYU and seeing the park more frequently, I can’t help thinking of the story every time I pass the chess plaza in the west corner of the park. Eventually I became curious enough to do a little research, and it turns out that the tables are quite interesting in their own right.

It turns out that the chess hustlers who inhabit the southwest corner of Washington Square Park are only the most recent embodiment of a long and proud tradition of street chess. These players set up their boards in the park, charging by the game, by the hour (for lessons, of course), or sometimes betting on the outcome. While this last is technically illegal, the police have generally turned a blind eye over the past several decades.

Chess and checkers tables have been a fairly common part of NYC’s public parks since the 1940s.[1] but the popularity of “street chess,” is held by most to have begun in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when a man named Bobby Hayward set up a chess set on top of a garbage can at 43rd St and 8th Avenue. This was not a new idea—in fact, Humphrey Bogart is said to have supported himself by playing chess during the Great Depression—but taking the game to the street was apparently a new innovation.

In their time the Washington Square tables have hosted the elite of the chess world. In the 1960s and ‘70s particularly, the park was well known in the chess world as a center of the game where one could find players like American Grandmaster and 11th World Champion Bobby Fisher, International Master Kamran Shirazi, and Grandmasters Joel Benjamin and Roman Dzindzichashvili. More recognizable (to the general public anyway) past Washington Square players include Stanley Kubrick and Heath Ledger. Today the park is still very much an active part of the chess world, and although the current players might be less well known, the hustlers are celebrities in their own right. Typically playing five-minute games of “speed” or “blitz” chess, men like Russian Paul[2], Sweet Pea, and JP[3] are known and respected within the local chess community. (I use the term “local” loosely—chess players come from all over the world to play in Washington Square Park).[4]


“Chess Plaza” was recently updated as part of a major redesign of the park, but the changes were relatively minimal. There are now 18 tables instead of 19, and a flowerbed in the middle. However, it retains its recognizable layout, as featured in the 1993 film, Searching for Bobby Fischer,  ’94 film Fresh, and Candido Tirado’s recently premiered play, Fish Men.[5]

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It’s December in New York City, and all kinds of people are out and about decorating for the holidays and getting ready to celebrate however they traditionally do. Menorahs and Christmas lights begin appearing in windows, New Yorkers struggle to push aside the tourists in front of store windows on 34th street, and municipal employees hang lighted snowflakes on telephone poles. Whatever the season means to you, it’s hard to miss one Greenwich Village Christmas tradition being celebrated again this year: The lighting of the Washington Square Park Christmas tree.

Washington Square Christmas Tree, 2007

The Washington Square Christmas Tree in 2007. Image: Ianqui under Creative Commons.

The tradition goes back to 1924, when the Washington Square Association invited the community to be part of a Christmas celebration in the park, featuring a tree and the singing of Christmas carols.

“Gustavus T. Kirby, President of the Washington Square Association, announced that this city, like Washington, would have a permanently planted Yule-tide evergreen. The tree was selected at Amawalk, N.Y. by Francis D. Gallatin, the Park Commissioner; George D. Pratt, President of the American Forestry Association, and Mr. Kirby, and will be planted on Tuesday afternoon in Washington Square with appropriate ceremonies. The tree is the gift of Miss Evelyn W. Smith, who presented the National Tree to President Coolidge for planting in the White House grounds. New York’s spruce is a duplicate.” (New York Times, “Railroads Prepare for Christmas Rush” December 21, 1924.)

The original tree was officially presented on December 24, 1924, by Parks Commissioner Gallatin. The “appropriate ceremonies” included the lighting of the tree, which was to be equipped with “1,500 amber, green and red incandescent lights.” (New York Times, “City’s Celebration of Yuletide Begins” December 24, 1924) as well as caroling, and as the article went to press, the plan was to project the words of Christmas carols directly onto the Washington Square Arch, “…so that all present may read and sing.” The living tree, temporarily set up by the arch, was then to be planted permanently elsewhere in the park the following Monday. Unfortunately, this author cannot find any more information about the planting of the tree. However, an article entitled “Real Trees are Urged for XMas” was published in the New York Times the next year (on December 6, 1925) stating, “Each year…a cry is raised that to have Christmas trees is to endanger our waning forest resources. [Charles Lanthrop Pack, president of the American Tree Association] said, ‘Conservation is wise use. The children should have their Christmas trees.’” It seems that today’s Washington Square Christmas Tree is a cut one, but in the spirit of “wise use,” we can still hope that the original living tree was able to be planted and enjoyed for many years after its journey to New York City! And of course, every time we walk through Washington Square Park and see an evergreen, we can imagine that it’s an 87 year veteran of park life.

Although the Washington Square Association continues to host the event, over the years other members of the community have joined in the tree-lighting festivities. For example, from 1993 through 2009, New York University hosted its annual All-University Holiday Sing, with many of its musical ensembles and choirs performing.

“This sensational event brings together family and friends with reminiscent music to rouse us all into the holiday spirit. Featuring performances by NYU’s Jazz Choir, Gospel Choir, University Singers, Ani V’ata, Children’s Chorus, and the NYU Orchestra. Experience the ever-enchanting music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and let your spirit sing as the NYU Orchestra accompanies the entire audience in an engaging carol sing-a-long! Everyone who attends will receive a surprise treat!” (NYU Events Page, December 9, 2003)

According to sources at the NYU Archives, even former NYU president L. Jay Oliva joined in the fun during his tenure! The sing was held in Washington Square Park in the 1990s, often in conjunction with the caroling at the Washington Square Tree Lighting, and continued to be held inside in later years. The last Holiday Sing in evidence on NYU’s events calendar took place on December 8, 2009, in the Loewe Theater on West 4th Street, seemingly signifying the demise of the holiday tradition.

Although NYU’s All-University Holiday Sing seems to have been discontinued (and readers, please correct me if I’m wrong) the Washington Square Christmas Tree Lighting is still going strong, and the tree was lit this year on December 7th, despite rainy weather. Caroling is planned for December 24th, if anyone is inclined to see the tree for themselves.

Here’s to hoping all our readers have a great holiday, however they do or don’t celebrate, and that all students have a stress-free winter break! Happy holidays from Greenwich Village!

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