New York

Rediscovering New York: Scenes from a Wild Weekend in Washington Square Park

Artist's chalk drawing in Washington Square Park

A chalk painting of Ocean Drive in South Beach, I think.. ala Van Gogh’s Starry Night?

It’s an August weekend and I’m in Washington Square Park. I rarely come here and I’m not exactly sure why. I tell myself that it’s a pain in the butt to get  from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, to this part of Greenwich Village, but that’s not really true. Laziness? Yeah, that sounds more like it.

The park’s nine acres are packed with people. It’s a family crowd but with an edge. There are tourists (of course), mixed with purple-haired locals with sleeve tattoos, hipsters, and the sort that spend an enormous amount of money on their clothes but like to pretend they don’t.  There’s even a Hello Kitty draped mom with her matching mini-me taking in the sights. I have no words.

It’s hot and sticky and the water in the park’s ginormous fountain has become the center of the universe. Children skip and splash and scream in that high-pitched, this-is-way-too-fun-to-contain-myself way they get when playing has reached epic proportions. With their street clothes sopping wet, they giggle until they can hardly breath.

Nearby, a woman is making bubbles—huge bubbles that float in the air like small blimps. In the sunlight they sparkle with tiny rainbows. A flaxen-haired cutie about 3 feet tall wearing purple sandals squeals, hands raised high, and chases after the flying suds. “Again!” She says to the bubble lady “Again!”

Little girl and father playing in the fountain in Washington Square Park, NYC

This little darling didn’t need to go into the fountain. She was quite content to drench herself in one of the jets

Near the famous Washington Arch, the remnants of a chalk artist’s work adorns the sidewalk. I think it’s a scene of Ocean Drive in South Beach with its pastel hotels and palm trees that look out over the water, but I can’t be sure.

An artist in the flesh, pony-tailed and wearing knee guards, is on all fours working on a sand painting of a Day-Glo snowflake that’s 20 feet across. Methodically, he digs his hands into various zip lock bags containing colored grains and slowly releases them in a steady stream onto the cement. People film him with their camera phones while he works. I watch and dread a strong gust of wind.

Little girl reaches for bubbles in Washington Square Park

“Again! Again!” She would say..

I wander over to a pigeon handler sitting on a bench; his name is Larry.  He’s too skinny and his hair is a mess as if he just emerged from a lifetime in the wild. He has a bag of seeds and dozens of birds at his feet. Two sit on his shoulders and when I approach, another two jump on his head. He grabs one close to his mouth and nuzzles it. “They have a body temperature of 107 degrees, you can’t catch anything,” he says with a toothless grin and kisses the top of its head. I don’t argue, germs aren’t what concern me. I’m thinking about the lice that live on pigeon feathers and inwardly I gag.

An artist puts the finishing touches on his Day-Glo snowflake

An artist puts the finishing touches on his Day-Glo snowflake

Bug lips aside, he’s a very sweet man and this is his moment. He shares “his” pigeons with the people and the people love it. A blind teenager lets Larry drop a handful of seeds in his palms and instantly a few pigeons land on the boy’s arms. He squeals with delight. His father is flummoxed. “He’s always been afraid of birds. I can’t believe it.” We both look at his son and enjoy the show. He stands like this for over 20 minutes and is beside himself every time they perch on his forearms. When I say my goodbyes, Larry calls after me “Don’t forget to check me out on Instagram, hashtag LarrythePigeonMan.”

#LarrythePigeonMan

#LarrythePigeonMan

Fifty feet away, a jazz band, Rasheed and the Jazz Collective, are playing on one of four walkways that lead to and from the center of the park. “It’s their spot,” I’m told by a regular. They’ve played there every summer for 16 years. A musician blows two trumpets at once and his cheeks puff out like Dizzy Gillespie. I’m not a fan of modern jazz—to me it sounds like the soundtrack from a fever-induced nightmare—but I watch and listen for a while and then make a b-line towards the rat-a-tat-tat of drums near the fountain.

Jazz musicians in Washington Square Park, NYC

Cheeks puffed out like Dizzie Gillespie, this musician has been playing in the park with his band for over 16 years.

I’m just in time to see Tic & Tac, twin brothers and two of their friends, finish their show. They mix dancing, acrobatics and comedy into a high-energy extravaganza that has crowds watching three people deep. They rake in the “donations.”

The Empire State building peeks through the famous Washington Arch facing Fifth Avenue.

The Empire State building peeks through the famous Washington Arch facing Fifth Avenue.

Facing Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch, a pianist plays on the slightly battered grand piano often found in the park.

Facing Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch, a pianist plays on the slightly battered grand piano often found in the park.

The park is a circus without the three rings and the big top. I don’t like the real deal with the not funny clown gags and stupid animal tricks, but this circus is different. This I like. Everyone is enjoying life. There’s fun and music and art all mixed together and everything that’s wrong in the world is forgotten.

At least for a little while.

I really have to visit more often.

More Rediscovering New York

20 replies »

  1. Your photos are wonderful and really convey the atmosphere you describe with your words. I have rested my weary feet in Washington Square but never really spent adequate time there to absorb the atmosphere. It looks from your photos and description to be full of charm and character. I will need to make a point of stopping there with the kids next time we take a trip to midtown Manhattan.

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      • Yes, another blogger warned me about the conveyer belt nature of the High Line. I think if we were to be staying overnight, we would do it early in the morning. I want to take the kids up either the ESB again or up the Rockefeller in order to see the view at night and I think that would be quite a good top and tail to a day.

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      • Top of the Rock.. the very top has a great view of the ESB and the WTC.. all of lower Manhattan really. But go after sunset. It’s a tourist nightmare and if you try to see it then it will take hours. 8 or 9pm is a good time.

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      • Yes, Top of the Rock! My brain totally farted on what it was called. Ha ha. I have never been up there so that would be very cool. My husband and I went up the ESB at night in August 2001. I not only appreciated all the twinkly lights but the lack of clear perspective helped with my fear of heights.

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  2. Brilliant set of images Susan……love the shot of the little boy running in the fountain and the way you have managed to pretty much freeze his head and shoulders, but get so much movement in the rest of the image. Love the shallow DoF you’ve employed in some of these images as well.

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    • Thanks for noticing Mark. I was actually working on experimentation with my DoF.. I have a 35mm that can open up to f1.4 and I’ve been playing with how to use it. Panning too has also been a favorite of mine. Panning kids is great practice for wildlife. They both move quickly and erratically. 🙂

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    • I was thinking about you and Leanne when I was there Robin. (I’m still not sure about Kenya…can you believe it ? So crazy.) Anyhoo, depending on what day of the week you’re in town, you definitely might want to put this in the itinerary. Thank you!

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  3. Living in NY, as busy as it is for most of us here, this was a great inspirational point of view of one of the many parks within the City. Thanks so much for the personal touch and wonderful pictures. Next time I make an effort to enjoy our parks, I want to spend more time here in Washington Square Park! Thanks so much for a great read!

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