Meet Annie Li. A freshman at Emory University, Annie is a gifted photographer and journalist. Inspired by the constant action and the diverse people that make up Washington Square Park, Annie wrote the following piece during a program called The Urban Journalism Workshop in New York City this summer. See the UJW site to view Annie’s stunning photo essay.
Back when Victoria Larkin was growing up, the rent her single mom—a part-time actress and liquor store cashier—paid for the family’s Upper West Side apartment was $340. Today, it’s $4,000.
“Somebody like her could never make it here, now,” fiftysomething Larkin said of her working-class mother. “And that is just happening through the city, and that is changing the city profoundly.”
Larkin, a writing tutor, was remarking on New York City’s devolution one afternoon as she sat in Washington Square Park. It’s one of her favorite city spots, she said, and one of a precious few constants of city life.
Indeed, for a variety of people, personalities, and characters, Washington Square Park is beloved. When he was a boy, “Tiger” Jackie Robinson’s father used to bring him here. His mentally ill mother abandoned the family when he was 7 years old. His good and devoted father died last year, Robinson, 51, said, covering his face with his hands and wiping away fresh tears.
“Can I play a song?” he asked, fingering his portable keyboard. “That will cheer me up.”
Many days, Washington Square Park is spilling over with music, visual art, dancing, kids skateboarding or splashing around in the fountain or biking. People sit on benches, fountain steps, and grassy lawns to read, to hold a lover’s hand, to meditate, to pray, to do nothing.
Taron Tabron’s Bible lay in his lap as he sat on a bench under a tree. He was, the 40-year-old said, just watching and reflecting. He goes to the park because it’s “a great place to enjoy myself and be sacred and … enjoy the beautiful sky and the trees and everything and the people.”
Homeless persons like Tabron sometimes linger in the park. “No it’s not a home,” he said, meaning that it’s not a roof over his head. “It’s a home to some of the animals, birds, and squirrels.”
He paused. “Maybe the outdoors, in general, is my home.”
Stephen Duncan, 34, is among performance artists for whom Washington Square Park is a canvas. His medium? Bubbles. Holding a big bubble wand, Duncan extended his arms, moved them back and forth. The motion made massive bubbles.
“Washington Square Park is an entity within itself,” he said. “Every park, I feel, is an opportunity for me to share my trade, my creativity. This is very much a part of my life. I don’t see a season going by when I’m not doing this.”
The park’s fountain is a preferred spot for Luca Bertani, 20, to drum. Its drips, swirls, and swishes form a backdrop for the rhythms he beats out. “There’s a lot of various things coming together that only come together here. Like the musicians, the way this place is laid out, the trees, the water,” he said.
In that place, Larry the Birdman—who declined to give his last name—is a fixture. The 52-year-old is known for the pigeons who come to him as if he has named and summoned them. That day in the park, the Birdman stood with a mixture of seeds and nuts in his fists. Opening them, he sprinkled bird food onto the ground. They flocked to him. When he whistled, they flocked to him—landing on his shoulders, arms, and head.
His connection to Washington Square Park, “is because of these guys,” he said, gesturing toward the pigeons.
Skateboarder Michah Coore, 20, goes to Washington Square Park twice a week to practice, alongside his two friends, Mikaja Hogu, 24, and Miguel Torres, 26. Passersby watched them skateboard and took pictures.
“When people watch, it’s in admiration,” Coore said, “I guess, like how you watch someone else do something you can’t do.”
Coore said that he likes the park because a diversity of people gather there. And because the floor is smooth. Plus, the police do not kick his crew out.
Francesca Colosi, 47, was, on a recent day, sitting quietly in the park, observing the scene. She was not fiddling with her phone, reading or talking.
Washington Square Park, she said, is “a place where you can feel New York. You can see New York in a glass. … Another thing that I love about this place is the chess players because, in this situation, you see very different people … I like when a game puts different people together. The parents wait and you see this old man play with children. I like that.”
For the last several years, Washington Square Park has been a kind of headquarters for Brandon Doman’s “Strangers Project,” which lets anyone handwrite their story on white paper. Doman, 32, selects which of those tales to display on a line of twine he stings up in the park.
Today is the best day of my life because my dad Alex is here and … I love my dad he brought me a snow cone I just love him so much. That’s what one writer wrote—missing punctuations, misspellings and all.
“It’s a great spot,” he said. “The only requirement for this to work is that there’s people walking by and there’s certainly a great mix of people here.”
The park, writing tutor Larkin said, is “one of the remaining areas with cross-genre meetings—ages, economics, ethnicities … which is why I come here so often … This park is a great microcosm of the city, in a lot of ways. And it’s all bunched up together, so make use of it. Come often.”