Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Battle For Washington Square (Is Over).

Don't believe the headline on today's City section cover story, "The Battle for Washington Square."

Yes, there once was a battle over the city's renovation of the Greenwich Village landmark -- neighbors and developers fought hard over the Parks Department's $16 million plan, announced in 2004, to move the legendary fountain, build fences and make other repairs.

But the fight has been over for months, leading one to wonder: why is the City section writing about it after the fact, yet trying to represent the situation as current? The answer lies in longtime City section editor Constance Rosenblum's ongoing, almost bizarre obsession with New York nostalgia -- with weekly cover stories that often devote more space to reflecting the past than reporting on the present.

That Washington Square battle ended in December 2007, when the courts ruled against the protesters and allowed the plans to continue -- a fact reported by the Times in its City Room blog on December 6, 2007. That story explained that the lawyer for the protesters, while unhappy with the ruling, seemed disinclined to appeal.

The Times had covered the conflict extensively over the last three years; the first story on it, by Timothy Williams, appeared on May 10, 2005 and addressed all the same issues raised in today's takeout.

But for the purposes of creating a fresh-seeming cover story, the City section has ginned up a phony conflict to cover up the fact that its reporter missed the battle while it was actually taking place.

Here's how reporter Graham Bowley finessed the point in his 2,417-word piece this morning:

In 2004, responding to what it said were numerous calls for repairs and improvements, the parks department announced a plan to renovate the space, a proposal quickly met with bitter opposition from residents who complained that their park was being violated. In December 2007, after candlelight vigils, demonstrations and rancorous fights at community board meetings and in the courts, the city won and workers began moving in.

Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements. Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase 1 of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.

For them, the battle for Washington Square is not over. Some refuse to visit the park, or they speak out on blogs and in person to anyone who will listen. Their frustration cuts to the core of the connection to places that are important to New Yorkers and speaks powerfully to the question of who controls the public spaces that many city residents treat as personal fiefs.

“It feels to me like an injustice happened,” said [Cathryn] Swan, [a freelance public relations consultant] who vents her frustration on her blog,, and conducts tours to point out what she sees as the impact of the redesign. “We can’t let them get away with it.”

Okay, so now it starts to become clear how today's cover fits into the City Section's ongoing romance with reverie. Bowley's story doesn't chronicle the battle, but the aftermath -- the bitter, sore losers who plan to remind us regularly how the character of their park has been irrevocably altered by the changes.

As you continue through Bowley's account, you'll find just how much in the past it's set. We eventually learn that Jonathan Greenberg, an Internet entrepreneur who was one of the plan's most vocal opponents -- and who is quoted here at some length -- has since moved to California.

Cathryn Swan is the story's lede example, to whom the story devotes several paragraphs. In the lede, Bowley shows her using a tape measure to angrily show a reporter where the new fence in the park will go. We even see her posting a flyer that reads, "Stop Mayor Bloomberg from destroying Washington Square Park."

Not until nearly the last paragraph of Bowley's account does he reveal that Swan -- who lived for eight years at Hudson and Jane Streets -- now lives in Kensington, Brooklyn.

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