I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published June 2nd 2010
Ironically, Union Square was not named for being the center of the Labor Rights Movement, but for the intersection of Broadway and the former Bowery Road, now Fourth Avenue. Even so, Union Square is rich in political history and has a long-standing place in the hearts of many activists. Anyone with an interest in that rich history can come by on any Saturday to hear a free, 90-minute "Crossroads of the World" Tour about the scenic square sponsored by the Union Square Partnership.
Before the land was Union Square (formerly Union Place) it wasn't much more than a potter's field. The equestrian statue of George Washington, unveiled in 1856, was the first publicly erected American statue since 1770. It was the first of many. Today, Union Square boasts a variety of bronze historical figures including: Abraham Lincoln (1868); Marquis de Fafayette (1873); and Mahatma Gandhi (1986).
Union Square's earliest development was residential and Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (of Central Park fame) were the square's original landscapers, planting trees there as early as 1872, and widening sidewalks to accommodate "the public requirement of mass meetings." The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the square populated by upper class Manhattanites with substantial mansions, many of them attracted to the area's central location. That location was also useful to those interested in the cultural activities of the day, as the surrounding environment was home to a variety of theaters, and music and lecture halls.
By the time the Civil War ended, more and more commercial developers began looking at Union Square because of its prime location and ample foot traffic. Tiffany & Co. called the neighborhood home for 35 years beginning in 1870. It was also home to other silversmiths' shops around the same period.
The end of the Civil War ushered in a new era for Union Square as 250,000 people gathered there to celebrate. September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day, also brought huge crowds to the square. Then after the site became synonymously known for political gatherings and demonstrations of every stripe. Anarchists and would-be Socialists gathered there to speak and protest during the Progressive Era, and after 9/11, Union Square became a central meeting place for the public to collectively mourn loved ones.
Today's Union Square is as dynamic as ever, and certainly as controversial. Recent plans to privatize the park, bringing a restaurant to the pavilion space in its northern section have been troubled, at best. People aware of the park's history of political activism believe that the park should remain only as a public square, open for meetings and demonstrations. Others claim that Union Square is changing only to meet today's demands for a multi-use space. One bright spot in all the back and forth between activists and city planners is the attractive new state-of-the-art playground that recently opened. And few argue that the lively Greenmarket that makes its home in the square four days a week is anything less than welcomed.
Those interested in taking the Crossroads Tour should come early. Stop by the Greenmarket, pick up some seasonal fruit, a hunk of homemade organic cheese, and some tasty bread. After meeting by the Abraham Lincoln statute at 2 PM and walking the subsequent tour, settle down in the shade, listen to the rattle and hum of passersby, check out the free wifi, and let your mind wander.