This park may be on the small side, at 9.75 acres, but it is one of the most easily recognizable spots in all of New York City. The park is often bustling with both locals and tourists, and it is located right in the heart of one of New York’s great neighborhoods, Greenwich Village.
You could also tour Greenwich Village with another top-notch tour company, Real New York Tours.
Where is Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is located in the middle of what is today referred to as the West Village and East Village. It is located just south of Midtown Manhattan and just north of Lower Manhattan’s Financial District and SoHo.
It is very easily reached by subway, with the West 4th Street Station being the closest to the park. This station (red circle below) is serviced by the A, C, E, B, D, F, M trains.
It can also be reached from the 1 train at Christoper Street Station (yellow circle), 8th St. – NYU Station (orange circle) with the N and R trains, Astor Pl Station (green circle) with the 6 train and the PATH train at 9th Street (brown circle), making it very easy to reach from just about anywhere in the city.
The area where Washington Square Park is today was once inhabited by Native American tribes, as was the rest of Manhattan. They were pushed out of the area by the Dutch West Indies Company, who then used the land as farmland for freed African American slaves. After slaves had served a certain number of years they were allowed to retire and farm their own land. These farms were strategically placed north of the city to serve as a human buffer zone between the Native American tribes and the white Dutch settlers.
The area remained farmland until 1797. The area was still considered a separate town from New York City. It was called the Village of Greenwich, which is where the neighborhood name comes from. The area was bisected by the Minetta Creek. In 1797 the Common Council of New York purchased the tract of land east of the Minetta Creek, right where Washington Square Park stands today. The land was purchased to be turned into a potter’s field, or burial ground for those who could not afford burial plots. Shortly after the purchase, New York was stricken with an epidemic of yellow fever. For health and safety reasons, the city did not want the thousands of people who died to be buried within the city. They buried them in the newly purchased potter’s field. The cemetery remained open until 1825. 20,000 bodies remain buried under Washington Square Park to this day.
The square was first laid out in 1826, officially designated as the Washington Military Parade Ground. This was a designated space for militias to drill. Townhouses were built along the perimeter of the new square, and it quickly became one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Many of these original, Greek-Revival townhouses still stand today.
The predominant feature of the park, the Washington Arch, was added to the park in 1889. The original arch was made out of wood and plaster and was a decoration for the centennial celebration of George Washington’s inauguration. It was so popular that a permanent arch made out of Tuckahoe marble was built in 1892. The arch was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and was designed by architect Stanford White. When the foundations for the eastern leg of the arch were laid, human remains and a gravestone from 1803 were uncovered, reminding us of the area’s graveyard past.
An inscription on the arch reads: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.” The inscription is a quote by George Washington.
Washington Square Park Today
The park today is used extensively by locals and tourists alike. The park has multiple forms of recreation, including chess and bocce ball. For more information on events and activities in the park, visit the park’s official webpage.
Students from New York University (whose buildings surround the park) are frequent visitors to the park. You will also find an ever-changing array of performers, buskers, musicians and spontaneous jams.
(Tip: If you are looking for great free musical performances, Washington Square Park isn’t the only place in town. Don’t forget that New York City has some of the best subway musicians, buskers, and performers. Our post about Where to find New York City Street Performers and Subway Music will lead you to right to them!)
Quick Facts About Washington Square Park
Henry James’s 1880 novel “Washington Square” is set in one of the Greek-Revival townhouses along the northern edge of the park
When Harry drops Sally off in NYC at the beginning of the film “When Harry Met Sally,” he pulls up by the Washington Arch.
The first labor march in New York City was held in Washington Square Park in 1834. Stonecutters were protesting the use of prison labor for building by New York University. Stonecutters said that this was taking work away from them.
In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain shared a bench in the park and chatted. (Stevenson was in the city for medical treatment.)
20,000 people marched in Washington Square Park in 1912 to commemorate the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire the year before.
Another march in the park took place in 1915, this time demanding women’s suffrage.
The park was a gathering place for the Beat Generation in the 1950’s and the hippie movement in the 1960’s.
In 1958, Buddy Holly (a neighborhood resident) hung out in Washington Square Park, listening to fellow musicians and helping other guitar players with their chords.
A young Stanley Kubrick played chess at the stone chess tables in Washington Square Park.
On January 23, 1917, a group of “conspirators,” including Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Drick climbed to the top of the Washington Arch one evening. They stayed up there all night, tied red balloons to the arch, shot off cap pistols and declared the area “The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” Greenwich Village has a long history of spirited rebellion.
NYU holds a large pillow fight in the park every year.
The fountain in Washington Square Park was originally at one of the southern entrances to Central Park. It has been a popular wading pool during its time in Washington Square Park.
Pay What You Wish Tours That Cover Washington Square Park: