UNION SQUARE COMMUNITY COALITION HISTORY
The Union Square Park Community Coalition was founded in the Spring of 1980 by a group of neighborhood residents who were
concerned about the dangerous and deteriorated condition of Union Square Park. The city's fiscal crises had crippled the Parks
Department. Half of its maintenance personnel were laid off. The majority of its recreation staff was fired. Years of municipal neglect
had taken its toll. Basic maintenance and repairs were ""deferred." The pavilion's lower bathrooms were abandoned and its copper fixtures
stripped by thieves. The layout of the park and the high bushes on the perimeter created protection for drug dealers, and, along with the
decline of the pavilion, discouraged community use.
The USPCC (the word "Park" in the title was eventually dropped) dedicated itself to lobbying for park restoration, to increase
funding and to encourage both community use and use by the neighborhood. To this end, the new organization (now a 501-3C non-profit
corporation) engaged in repainting the bases of the statues, removing graffiti and inviting neighborhood residents to join in new
We also hired local entertainers to perform on Saturday afternoons in the pavilion for an audience that sat on the steps
surrounding the sunken area, which formed a natural amphitheater. There were jugglers, puppeteers, folk singers, string quartets and many
other kinds of performers, including Morris Dancers, medieval enactors and theatrical troupes. Our intent was to get people into the park
and to educate the public that they were losing a valuable community resource. During this first Summer (of 1980) we held read-ins on the
weekends at the 16th Street crosswalk. We invited neighbors to sit with us and read their newspapers. We supplied a large vat of free
The next summer we began holding pot-luck suppers on the last Wednesdays of June, July and August. These were held in the sunken
terrace in front of the pavilion with the cooperation of the New York City Parks Department, which supplied tables, benches and chairs.
Children used the play equipment installed in the sunken terrace. These open air picnics were very popular with people within and outside
the neighborhood. All were welcome and a great variety of food was shared. These pot-lucks continued until the space was taken over by
a temporary summer restaurant in 1982.
At about the same time we initiated our annual Halloween Parties for local kids, very popular events at which we supplied
numerous kinds of material for the creation of costumes from scratch. We also held summer movie evenings with borrowed films from the
Donnell Library. The Parks Department was very cooperative in supplying a projector, screen, chairs and their wonderful PEP officers and
We were relentless in keeping the public interested in the park and showing the Parks Department there was a real constituency
for park renovation. To raise money, we held flea markets and bake sales, which also brought more people into the park and made them
aware of our work.
Finally, due to our and others' lobbying efforts, the Parks Department embarked on the first phase of renovation of Union Square
Park. After much resistance, the department allowed us to work with them in planning the new layout for a restored park. Our efforts paid
off in Spring, 1988 when a new southern half of Union Square Park was opened to much rejoicing.
The area surrounding the park had been changing; many loft conversions brought new families and lots of children and the renovated
park became immensely popular. However, what was needed next for the park was real playgrounds for the children and we had another issue
to fight for.
At about this same time a large building, Zeckendorf Towers, opened on the old S. Klein's site on Union Square East. USCC and
many others felt that this proposed development was inappropriate for the area. We had spent the previous year lobbying the surrounding
four Community Boards and the New York City Planning Commission to control the rezoning of Union Square so that the rest of the Square
would not become similarly oversized. It took much mobilization and effort but we were eventually successful.
The changes in the area and the renovation of the park brought people into the park. The new families, and those who had been
fearful before, now began filling the park to such an extent that there was a shortage of seating throughout. We helped the Parks
Department solve this problem by buying new movable chairs and tables. We also added special tables with attached seats. All are very
But the popularity of the park brought with it other new problems. It became a magnet for holding both commercial and
public-spirited events. Community Board 5 was overwhelmed with requests from all the boroughs and from many other regions. Prayer groups
from as far away as North Carolina wanted to hold revival meetings in the park, and various ethnic and other organizations wanted to hold
concerts, festivals, gatherings and celebrations there. There was a tremendous demand to use the park as a showplace for every type of
enterprise. It reached the point where there was rarely a weekend when the park was not being taken over by some public or private group.
We pressured CB5 to limit these events and worked with them; we attended the monthly meetings of the CB5 Parks Committee and also those
of the full board. Meanwhile, however, the city was encouraging private companies to put on events in the park for a price. These
productions were often inappropriate for a small park and what was now a residential neighborhood. In essence, the city began selling
park space for revenue. The soon-massive number of events also created a terrible noise problem due to unrestrained amplification. Most
organizers ignored volume restrictions and the whole neighborhood was affected. This is an ongoing problem: with the beginning of warm
weather each year, USCC has to plead with park officials and the police to monitor volume violations.
On a more positive note, one of USCC's board members, Diana Carulli, and her helpers, painted beautiful labyrinths on the pavement
of the North Plaza, which were visible and popular when the Greenmarket did not occupy that area. These were maintained by Diana and her
crew and greatly enhanced a bare space. Many enjoyed meditating there.
Also, due to our efforts, historic building and areas were landmarked in the square and on nearby streets. We fought hard for
preservation, without the support of our local business development group, and were fortunately successful. The beautiful restored Barnes
& Noble building would now be an ordinary high-rise without our relentless efforts to maintain the character of Union Square. Restaurants
and other establishments soon realized the potential in these lovely old buildings and Union Square became more vibrant than
We also pushed for new playground space every year. The temporary separate playgrounds the Parks Department finally created were
woefully inadequate, and they eventually promised large permanent play space.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, New York University began a big expansion in our area, mainly by building new structures and renovating
existing structures as dormitories. Most of these were quite large, and too many were built for our residential/commercial area. The
University seemed indifferent to the existing community and we became one of many organizations jointly protesting this uncaring attitude
and the area's overdevelopment. The task force these organizations formed made it known to NYU how unacceptable their swallowing up of
our neighborhood had become. Unfortunately, the university moved so fast that the damage is done; part of NYU's outdoor campus is now
our small, overused park. Safety at night, at least, is certainly not an issue; except on really frigid nights, the park is
To keep the park safe, lively and freely open for all is the mission of USCC. We do not intend to cease being caretakers of our
beloved park and square. We support its use for protest and gatherings and feel gratified that it is returning to its former role as a
public square. It is the closest this city has to a Greek agora. We rejoice in that and will do our best to ensure that it continues as
such and is not misused.