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.