Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook and former publisher of the New Republic, wanted to get involved in solving “the crisis” at Washington Square Park.
In an email to his Greenwich Village neighbors last March, Hughes detailed a list of illegal activity he’d recently encountered: public drinking and fighting, a pedestrian plaza “overtaken” by vendors, skateboarders who “circle children and the elderly around the arch.”
“I'm sure I'm like a lot of other people who want to be organized by a group of people to apply political and social pressure (or money) to change these things,” he concluded, according to emails obtained by Gothamist. “What's the plan?”
Hughes, who recently sold his townhouse in the neighborhood for $19.5 million, was invited shortly after that exchange to join the board of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, a small nonprofit that raises money for the park.
His position in the conservancy gave him a direct line to Parks Department officials, who agreed to meet with him to discuss the coming crackdown on nuisance behavior, according to a trove of emails between city employees and conservancy members acquired by Gothamist through a public records request.
The correspondence shows how a group of well-funded park enthusiasts went far beyond its self-proclaimed “horticultural” mission to clamp down on disorder in a park that has long been a mecca for artists, students and radicals — and which had taken on new resonance for a generation seeking alternatives to nightlife during the pandemic.
In the emails, exchanged between January 2020 and December 2021, members of the conservancy group called for officials to eliminate certain events, facilitate private programming in public areas, and chase away “hooligans” in the park.
“It’s exactly what people feared: a handful of affluent individuals using their private money to dictate what goes on in a public park,” said Cathryn Swan, whose Washington Square Park Blog tracked the conservancy’s controversial beginnings nearly a decade ago. “This community was very vocal that they didn’t want that.”
The rise of the park conservancy
As New York City slashed funding to parks in the 1970s, the modern conservancy model emerged as a vehicle for wealthy donors to funnel money toward Central Park. The concept has since spread to dozens of other green spaces, stoking concerns of corporatization among some while earning praise for keeping taxpayer expenses down.
Unlike conservancies that oversee stalls at Madison Square Park or Bryant Park, the Washington Square Park Conservancy does not have a licensing agreement with the city. When the group sought community board approval in 2013, the Parks Department assured concerned residents the group would “not have a role in policy, planning or event creation.”
Rather, the founders – a group that included John Leguizamo’s wife, Justine, and the Italian jewelry heiress Veronica Bulgari – said they would be focused on recruiting volunteers for park maintenance, such as “planting bulbs, weeding the beds, mostly horticulture.”
But that role appeared to evolve alongside growing tensions in the park during the pandemic. Cut off from traditional nightlife, young people from across the five boroughs flocked to Washington Square Park, spurring complaints of increased noise and crime from local residents.
“We are on the case,” Bill Castro, the Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner, wrote to a conservancy member in September 2020 who had fled Manhattan for Maine but was worried about reports of parties and trash in the park.
“As I like to quote William Faulkner: ‘We will not only endure, we will prevail,” Castro wrote.
'Hooligans' and buskers
On the morning of June 6th, after police in riot gear clashed with park-goers over their enforcement of a new 10 p.m. curfew, Castro asked the conservancy’s chairperson Betsey Ely to call him for a “briefing” on the situation. “Hooligans,” she wrote back. “I saw lots of videos. Will call soon.”
In another email sent a week later, Ely requested that Parks Enforcement Patrol officers “stop amplified music by the fountain.” Will Morrison, the park administrator, wrote back three minutes later: “Yes I just asked them to head over.”
Morrison, who is tasked with overseeing parks operations, also consulted with the private group about a decision to barricade a corner of the park long associated with homelessness and drug use, reserving it instead for “Conservancy-led kids programming.”
“Kudos to one and all,” Ely replied. “Now next steps, how do we maintain it?”
A spokesperson for the conservancy declined requests to interview Ely, Hughes and other board members. Attempts to reach Hughes separately were unsuccessful. In a statement, the group’s Deputy Director Sheryl Woodruff said the conservancy was focused on supporting “landscapes, maintenance, and community” in the park.
Hooligans ... I saw lots of videos. Will call soon.
In 2021, the group raised $336,000 toward that effort, providing grants to the city that funded two gardeners, two maintenance workers, and a playground associate. The conservancy is currently hiring its own “program manager” to plan events aimed at kids and senior citizens.
“Within our community area, we offer a wide range of free public programming open to all, with activities for kids and adults of all ages from fitness to art, working to deliver something for everyone that spends time in Washington Square Park,” Woodruff said.
No special treatment
Crystal Howard, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, denied that members of the conservancy had overstepped the ban on “policy, planning or event creation.” She said the group’s events went through the same permitting process as any other organization.
“There is nothing to the assertion that the conservancy dictates parks policy or the management of the park in any way — that is solely the responsibility of the agency commissioner and those who represent the agency on their behalf,” Howard said.
Still, parks officials have repeatedly shown an eagerness to respond to requests of the conservancy, ranging from minor issues of lighting on the arch to larger questions of what type of activities and businesses should be permitted in the park.
In March of 2013, months before the group was officially recognized by the Parks Department, its founders suggested that two hot dog carts be relocated from their spot by the arch, according to memos obtained by Swan. The Parks Department fulfilled the request, even as other vendors selling ice cream sandwiches and gelato were permitted to stay.
Nine years later, emails show how competing visions of the park have emerged once again in battles over food distribution.
In one email sent last April, Justine Leguizamo, the conservancy’s vice president, approached the Parks Department about adding a cart from Rosecrans, a local cafe and wine bar. “I am supportive of adding what we in Parks call a ‘Speciality Cart’ to the park,” Morrison replied.
Mariquit Ingalla, the owner of Rosecrans, told Gothamist she had spoken to Leguizamo about adding a coffee and flower cart to the park’s “unsavory” northwest corner, citing the “opportunity to give [the park] that same experience you see at Bryant Park, where it's very well kept.”
“It got sketchy there during the pandemic,” Ingalla said. “It's shocking that something as iconic as Washington Square Park has the troubles that it does.”
By contrast, Derrick Demaria, a member of the Washington Square Park Mutual Aid Group, said the park had never felt as alive as it did in the early days of COVID.
“During lockdown, the park was a hotbed of ideas, of people coming together outside to share music and art,” Demaria added. “Clearly they see this is a moment of opportunity to make the park something it hasn’t been: sterile and inaccessible, like a mall.”