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