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.