Union Square is a three-block pause in Manhattan’s matrix. It was named neither for labor unions nor for the union of states but for the union of roads in which it lies. Seventeenth Street and 14th Street mark its boundaries north and south. Broadway, rolling downtown, hits the square’s northwest corner, and then resumes its course at the southeast. The eastern and western edges are called, prosaically, Union Square East and West.
Though the city fathers reserved an open space at the spot as early as 1811, Union Square was not developed until the mid-1830s. I moved to the neighborhood in 1977. So I have been living near the square for one-fifth of its life, two-thirds of mine. That has been time enough to mark two great eras in the life of the city.
The eras were cultural periods as distinctive as the Renaissance, the Gold Rush, or the Time of Troubles. Union Square when I moved in was marked by decrepitude, menace, and uneasy bustle. Now it is refreshing, safe, and bursting with life. When we lived in the first era, the second was unimaginable; and after living so many years in the second era, the first has become almost irrecoverable.
Some things about Union Square have been constants. The subway station beneath it is a major hub, servicing six lines spanning four boroughs. Anyone can get to Union Square, an important demographic point. The square’s nineteenth-century statues are a bronze civics lesson. A mounted George Washington sits to the south, Abraham Lincoln stands to the north; between them, Lafayette clasps his sword to his heart. They made, saved, and loved a country, and they tell anyone who bothers to look: do likewise. Around and above them are the square’s trees, graceful as dancers, grave as judges; they pay attention to nothing but the weather.
What, then, was peculiar to 1977? Begin in the subway station. The subway cars throbbed with color—the spray-painted tags of vandals. Apprentices left black scrawls, but masters covered entire flanks of cars with fat doodles, bulbous or zigzag, of stylized numbers and letters. These were ads—this is me; and markers—I was here. They competed, the latest defacer defacing not only the car but the work of his peers. The graffiti was proprietary—technically, the MTA owned the cars, but the scribbling said: we own the underground.
The subway platforms, by contrast, were dark with dirt. The grime of a thousand footsteps had rubbed into the concrete, and over the concrete spread the blackened splotches of old gum wads: urban sand dollars. Beggars worked the passing trains—ordinary panhandlers and cripples, both real (you can’t fake leglessness) and bogus (a friend of mine pretended to be blind for one afternoon). But there weren’t many buskers. Who wanted to be entertained in such circumstances? Taking the subway was as cheerful as a visit to the mines of Moria.
Aboveground were different forms of desolation. The core of Union Square is a park. It is raised above street level, and in 1977 could be entered only by steps—short flights, seven or eight steps apiece, but enough to isolate it psychically. The park’s edges were lined with bushes that enclosed the park further and made it even more uninviting. The grass had been worn away to soil, and the soil compacted as hard as a floor. Young men loitered in the park, murmuring “Smokes? Smokes?” as you passed. They were not dangerous, at least not in the daytime, but they and the non-grass and the shrubbery barricade all encouraged you to be elsewhere.
One of the nearby businesses drew a rougher crowd. For a while, the northeast corner of Broadway and 17th Street was occupied by a club called The Underground. I once heard a guy describing a visit: “There was a posse here, and a posse there. I said, ‘Time to go.’ ” Its fame spread abroad: my trainer, who is from the islands, remembered hearing rap songs when he was young that referenced The Underground. When he came to the city, he checked it out. His recollection: lots of Jamaicans, lots of weed.
At least once, I saw in the large parking lot at the northern end of the square a group that was harmless, except intellectually and morally: a rally of the Communist Party USA. The attendees were aged but firm in their dogmas. One short man passed another short man hawking the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party (a Trotskyist group). The first man shook his head contemptuously: “Lousy paper!”
There were businesses in the neighborhood, some thriving. The southern edges of the square harbored the studios of graphic artists. I knew a photographer whose most famous shot was of a bleeding student demonstrator giving the peace sign, which became a poster captioned “Hail Columbia!” But his favorite shot was of himself posing (ironically) with American Nazis. Saul Steinberg belonged to this milieu and memorialized it with a New Yorker cover showing the square inhabited by hookers with animal heads.
Fourteenth Street was one long stretch of small stores selling odd lots. Queen of them all was a cute little slant-roofed building, a fabric outlet, which had been designed by, of all people, Morris Lapidus, the architect of Miami Beach. The current owners had encased his moderne glass windows in yellow tin, covered with garish red ad copy; so much for midcentury aesthetics. Two big buildings projected different economic messages. Con Ed inhabited a splendid beaux- arts structure a block to the east, topped by a Babylonian clock tower; it bespoke solidity and efficiency, like the utility itself. The defunct department store S. Klein, on the other hand, lay at the square’s southeast corner like a whale carcass. There were no longer enough bargain hunters to keep it going.
I came to live amid all this in 1977, the year of the blackout and the Son of Sam. Spike Lee has done a movie about that summer, and some people, mostly academics and journalists, romanticize it. Aspects of it were romanticized at the time—graffitists were called artists, and their work was solemnly pondered. This was all nuts. New York was not Detroit (empty spaces roamed by coyotes) or Baltimore (urban warfare). It moved, it hummed. It had gone bankrupt in mid-decade, but a kindly federal government had bailed it out. But its life seemed unnatural, like that of M. Valdemar, the tubercular patient in the Poe story who is hypnotized at the moment of death and keeps going in a trance, talking after a fashion; when the hypnotist finally ends his trance, he crumbles into “a mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.”
The first sign of change came in the Union Square subway station. There was a city-wide effort to clean stations and paint cars, and keep repainting them until vandals tired of seeing their handiwork obliterated. Petty criminals started getting arrested for petty crimes, such as turnstile jumping; many of them, when booked, turned out to be serious criminals wanted for other offenses. I do not have to tell readers of this journal how this change came about; this journal helped midwife it, by publishing George Kelling, co-formulator, with James Q. Wilson, of the doctrine of Broken Windows policing. Broken windows—and Day-Glo tags, and old gum, and too many lowlifes—proclaim that no one who is in charge cares; the orderly are disheartened, the criminal are encouraged; down goes the spiral. But mind the little things, and the spiral recoils; attention is being paid, normal people take heart, lawbreakers pull back. Barring a massive redo, the Union Square station will never be a technological marvel; the lines that converge there are up to a century old. But beginning in the early 1990s, it became clean and safe: a place for commuters, patient Jehovah’s Witnesses, and performers, who, while they may be annoying—Andean folk musicians, virtuosi of the musical saw—do not shake you down.
Similar methods were applied above- ground, with equally dramatic results. Union Square Park was replanted and, in part, relandscaped. Out went the Great Wall of Bushes, opening up sight lines; out, too, went the steps on either end of the 16th Street traverse. The walkway was graded and widened, so that police patrol cars could drive up and across. I would see them doing it now and again at night, a surreal displacement, like the Staten Island Ferry appearing in a bathtub. But the prowling vigilant cars announced that those in charge were in charge, and cared. After a while, it was no longer necessary for them to patrol the park.
There was rebuilding around the square, some successful, some unfortunate. New owners took the tin off Morris Lapidus’s handiwork, but newer ones tore it down and replaced it with an apartment building, an ugly little stack of glass boxes. Another new building on 14th Street sported a work of art on its square-facing wall called Metronome, consisting of shifting LED digits, bas-relief concentric circles, and a hole blowing smoke. It was not ugly, exactly—just incomprehensible, like a rebus in a dead language. S. Klein gave way to Zeckendorf Towers, a decided improvement, with apartments, offices, and street-level shops.
New businesses came to existing spaces. One was a gym in a 17th Street loft. It was named Johnny Lats, the nickname of its bodybuilder owner. It was black iron and bare bones: no steam room or sauna, barely a shower; the weight machines had been purchased cheap from a prison. Some of the clientele may have used them there. They came to the gym to work on their muscles and on their look, which, in many cases, were essential to their jobs as bouncers or other providers of security. One of them was described to me as a “leg man.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Someone who breaks legs,” I was told. The leg man had been engaged by a stripper whose boss had thrown her down a flight of stairs. He approached the boss one night in a parking lot and broke his legs. No more problem. At Johnny Lats, however, everyone was serious, quiet, and courteous. They were there to take care of business.
Another new business was the Green Market that occupies the paved outer rim of the square, hooking around the northern perimeter and down the west side to 15th Street. The Green Market actually began in the bad old days of the seventies, but it expanded as conditions improved. On market days, the farmers came in before dawn from upstate, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, offering produce that ranged from the ordinary (carrots, apples) to exotics of the temperate zone (wildflower honey, wild turkey). Urban man is a cut flower, uprooted from nature. But by carefully studying the wares of the Green Market, even he could follow the calendar of the seasons. I once saw Andy Warhol, whose Factory had been nearby, buying something leafy there. So he ate. Not only that, he ate things that grew in the ground. Who knew?
A third new business on Union Square West was the Coffee Shop. A trio of models took over Nick’s Coffee Shop, a classic Greek diner with a counter. They expanded the space, put a lounge in the basement and tables outside in the warm weather, and hired pretty young women as waitresses. Over time, my wife and I came to be an audience for their stories, like hip parents. One especially lovely woman complained that her boyfriend had gone out of town to visit a former lover but told her not to worry because the lover had become a lesbian. We suspected that this explanation was untrue. Other stories have been happier: pictures of just-marrieds, kissing on the courthouse steps at Foley Square. The restaurant, fashionably hot for a while, survived the inevitable relapse to normality and is still a place to eat and to sit outside and people-watch.
For there are always people to watch. Now that the park is neither desolate nor menacing, and the outer pavement fills every other day with shoppers and farmers, people who are not animal-headed prostitutes come in droves. There are kids who live in the dormitories of the real-estate speculation known as New York University; and kids from the Academy of Film in the old headquarters of Tammany Hall on 17th Street and Union Square East, using the park as the studio for student shorts. At the southwest lip of the park sit the chess players—men with boards set up on crates, with cups for tips. Wannabe Californians test their skateboarding skills on the steps and walls of the park’s southern end—always clumsily, it seems to me, but they can dream. And there is intentional entertainment—a bluegrass group, led by a banjo player who bangs out the rhythm with a foot tambourine; bagpipers; men who tease giant, quivering bubbles out of soap mix with sticks and who will (for a consideration) let you try it. Dog owners bring their companions to the dog run on the park’s southwest corner. Parents bring children to the playground at the north behind Lincoln’s back: infants pushed in swings, toddlers running through a water spray, bigger kids clambering up slides (boys—the eternal masculine—insist on clambering up the slide, rather than the steps). People on benches eat lunches. Couples hold hands, or (discreetly) more. Georges Seurat painted a famous study of Parisians in a park, which inspired Stephen Sondheim’s musical. What Seurat painted and Sondheim dramatized happens every day in Union Square. At night, there are people still—going to clubs, having a drink and a look, buying the lighted plastic spinners that young salesmen shoot up into the air like silent fireworks and that float twirling down.
How did this happen? How did we get from film noir to La Grande Jatte? Good economic times helped; more money is better than less. But good policing gave what cash cannot buy—the sense of ease. William Bratton, chief of the transit police (1990–92) and police commissioner (1994–96), was the marquee top cop. Equally important was Jack Maple, Bratton’s deputy police commissioner, who devised CompStat, the computerized system that tracks the daily flow of crime, precinct by precinct, and allows the police to respond quickly. More important than either was Rudy Giuliani, the mayor who put smart cops in place, understood their tasks as well as they did, and backed them to the hilt. Michael Bloomberg maintained Giuliani’s policies and improved on his record.
Square and city enjoyed a decades’ long summer. They even survived an act of war. The morning of 9/11, I saw the Twin Towers, three miles to the south, burning from Union Square. That night, the maître d’ of the Coffee Shop, a young Dominican, walked to the site to see if he could help somehow. There was nothing he could do. So what did people who could do nothing do? They came to Union Square and talked. Kids from their dorms, people in the neighborhood, people looking for news of missing people, congregated. They lit candles, prayed, discussed, vented. There were arguments, but I never saw anyone shove or even speak out of turn. The evangels of the perfect society, which can only be established by murder, had had their say; the inhabitants of a good society, which is maintained by good stewardship and thousands of daily individual efforts, were having theirs.
The focus of the Union Square gatherings was George Washington. The base of his statue came to be covered with posters and pictures (one depicted the towers); his outstretched arm and the croup of his horse were draped with American flags and peace flags. This was fitting because the last time that New York had been attacked was September 1776. Washington and 19,000 troops, mostly militia, had to defend the city against 32,000 British and Hessian regulars. They failed, and the enemy settled in as occupiers. A quarter of the city burned. Captain Nathan Hale was hanged in what is now City Hall Park. Major General Benedict Arnold, unmasked as a traitor, was debriefed in New York by his handlers. Eleven thousand Americans died in prison ships in the East River. Yet after seven years and victory, Washington came back. So could we.
The new era in Union Square, so wonderful, so resilient, can be as finite as the old. The transformation did not have to happen, and it will not necessarily last. In the fall of 2011, near the end of the Bloomberg administration, left-wing protesters calling themselves Occupy Wall Street, angered by inequality and a thousand other grievances, infested the city. Their focus was Zuccotti Park in the financial district, but they also rallied in Union Square. Unlike the Communists I had seen in the seventies, they had not spent years defending Stalin; they had not endorsed massive existing evil. But they were ignorant of the results of their preferred policies, were they ever to be implemented. Bill de Blasio, who succeeded Bloomberg in 2013, made Bratton police commissioner once again. The mayor understands, at least formally, the importance of keeping crime down. But does Bratton have the energy, and will he have the backing and the resources to do the job?
The greatest enemy of Union Square’s success is not ideology but success itself. In the new era, things have been good for so long that young people or newcomers cannot imagine them any other way. Anyone who lived through the previous era has memories, but they, like clippings in an album, have become brittle and faded. No, you never walked through the park at night when Reggie Jackson was a Yankee, but you still had sideburns then. Now?
Top Photo: sangaku/iStock