Union Square. Now.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Union Square was once an incredible death trap. During the latter years of the 19th century and up until the late 1920’s, the Square was perhaps most notorious for its Dead Man’s Curve. The cable car system that ran up and down Broadway took a hard “S” at about where the southern pedestrian plaza stands today just north of 14th Street.  You see, the cables ran underground at a constant speed and were set for the optimal speed…for going in a straight line. When the cars would get to the curve the conductors would shout for everyone to hang on as they zipped and rocketed trough said curve. So not only were there unsuspecting riders being tossed out onto the cobblestones, there were busy pedestrians getting mutilated and slaughtered by these speeding buckets of iron and wood. It wasn’t until 1929, when Union Square was completely torn up to make way for the massive underground transportation hub and the much more pedestrian friendly park that Union Square is today, that the square became a pedestrian-safe haven.

     
In addition to being a transportation and shopping nucleus, Union Square has always been a place where people gather to rally, protest, and generally say what’s on their mind. In 1908, an “anarchist” set off a bomb in the Square only killing himself and one other. Commies. This would come to set the tone for the rest of the century when the city would redesign the park several times to discourage political protests. If you look at the old photos from our Then portion of our Union Square post, you can see how much more space there is surrounding the actual park then there is today. With the redesigns, the city has put it under the control of the Parks Department which requires gatherers to follow a certain set of rules…great for peaceful gatherings, but sucks for protesters. Activists remain frustrated by this, but at least there is still room for feathery pillow fights and topless rallies. In fact, on just about any day you walk through the park, there is someone screeching about one injustice or the other. Sometimes valid. Sometimes ridiculous.
     
In 1970, Mayor Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue and held the first Earth Day celebration in New York City which culminated in Union Square with about 100,000 people. Lindsay wanted to promote the city as a fun and tolerant place to live, so, among other things, he shut down 14th Street for a couple of blocks on either side of the square and called it an “ecological carnival.” Six years later, the Union Square Greenmarket was founded with just twelve farmers. It somehow survived the drug dealers of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s and now has over 140 vendors and averages 60,000 shoppers a day. In addition to the Greenmarket, there is a holiday gift market that comes to the square every November and December with all sorts of folksy art, clothing and accessories. Today, those of us that live here often find Union Square to be a congested mélange of tourists seeking stinky candles and locals seeking fresh sunchokes, but there seems little question that the current iteration is an improvement over any of its former lives…unless you enjoy a limb-losing match of dodge ball with a clanging streetcar.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.

Union Square. Then.

When I first moved to the city in the early 90′s, one of the first places that freaked me out…as in get-me-out-of-here-I’m-about-to-get-beat-up freaked out…was Union Square. It was a nasty place with a bunch of smack addicts trying to figure out if you were the avenue to their next fix. A few smack addicts still hang out here, but the Square has been cleaned up tremendously. It is home to one of the best farmer’s markets in the country, there’s a fantastic playground for the kids and there are plans for a new restaurant in the pavilion, though they keep getting scuttled by one group or another. So this is Union Square now…how did it get here?When surveyors were working to carry out the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 (the one that created Manhattan’s grid), they realized that the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) cut at a strange angle just north of Bowery which would have made development difficult. They decided a square would solve this problem, so the city turned this former potter’s field into a commons for the public called Union Place. By 1832, the park was finished and surrounded by empty lots.

     
An enterprising gentleman named Samuel Ruggles (developer of Gramercy Park) got 50 year leases on almost all of them and went to work. He convinced the park’s commission to expand the plaza up to 17th Street to the north and extend University Place to form a western border to the park. He sunk his own money into sidewalks and curbs to make the lots more attractive and then did some more convincing to get the Board of Aldermen to enclose and grade the park and re-name it Union Square. Once satisfied with his hard work and cajoling, he sold off most of his leases and built himself a mansion with the proceeds. 
     
Beautifully planted and surrounded by mansions, Union Square functioned as a gateway to the city in the early years. It was home to the city’s elite until just after the Civil War when the ultra-fashionable areas began to creep uptown. In 1871, the city commissioned Calvert Vaux and Frederic Law Olmstead to redesign the park where they widened the sidewalks, created attractive pebble paths for strolling and a large plaza with viewing stand for public meetings, parades, rallies and protests. In fact, Union Square was the site of the very first Labor Day celebration on September 5th, 1882. For the rest of the 19th century, the area surrounding Union Square remained a chic and fashionable shopping and theater district.

But, that all changed and Olmstead and Vaux’s redesign landed in the proverbial “File 13.” Check back Friday morning for Union Square. Now.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.

The Greening of NYC.

New York City is full of sharp edges. Bricks and mortar, steel girders, massive expanses of glass and chain link fences.  Left raw, these materials make for a downright brutal place to look at and live. Here’s a sliver of my silver painted roof and chain link fence. Slap a tree, flower or bush into the mix (or all three in massive quantities) and it becomes another room for at least six months out of the year.

Do the same to the city and it becomes a much more palatable place to call home 12 months out of the year. Fan of Mayor Bloomberg or not, his Million Tree Campaign has made a tremendous impact on once aesthetically impoverished neighborhoods. My block in Alphabet City alone had eight new trees planted on it last year.  The Bronx has over 150,000 trees planted in areas that were once full of crumbling buildings. Broadway and First, Eighth, Ninth and soon-to-be Second Avenues have trees planted IN islands built to separate bike and car lanes! Really?! Trees in the middle of nasty First Avenue? Kind of amazing. Have you been to Union and Madison Squares lately?

     

These huge planters tastefully packed with an amazing array of tropical looking leafy things line the edges of the park and surround pedestrian areas that were once potholed throughways to carbon monoxide generating four wheeled machines. And forget about the amazingly lush Hudson River Park which 20 short years ago was a dilapidated falling-into-the-water mess. Just walking down the street in New York City has become a vastly more enjoyable experience with all of these new and growing green friends giving of shade and offering a welcomed juxtaposition to the concrete and glass.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.

Great Perspectives. Broadway and 13th.

After almost 20 years of calling New York my home, the view north over Union Square from Broadway and 11,th, 12th, 13th….still gives me those fresh off the turnip truck goose pimples.
About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.