This blog post was written by Stephen Petrus, Ph.D., Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow.
In the 1950s, Washington Square Park, the focal point of Greenwich Village, was the site of contentious debates in urban planning. The conflict stemmed from the plan of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to construct a roadway through the square. Moses aimed to expand Fifth Avenue through the park as part of an urban renewal project south of Washington Square.
The disagreement reflected the tension between modernity and community. Proponents of modern urban planning supported large-scale projects such as clearing out slums, building residential towers in parks, and constructing highways, arguing that these undertakings represented progress, growth, and efficiency. To their opponents, the projects undermined relationships among residents in city neighborhoods.
Initially proposed in 1952, the roadway plan instantly triggered community opposition, leading to the formation of the Washington Square Park Committee, chaired by Villager Shirley Hayes. A mother of four children who used the park regularly, Hayes became a prominent critic of the plan. She contended that the road would destroy the residential quality of the park. Hayes and other Village mothers expressed concern about the safety of their children. At meetings of the Greenwich Village Association, Washington Square Association, and community planning board, Hayes denounced the project and called for the park to be closed to all vehicular traffic.
Located at the New-York Historical Society, the Shirley Hayes Papers provide a window into the heated disputes that roiled the Village and attracted the attention of the nation. The Hayes Papers also give researchers a textbook example of community activism. Hayes established a coalition of neighborhood associations. Though it was relatively difficult to launch grassroots movements during the McCarthy Era, Hayes was persistent and successful. Her accomplishments were particularly impressive in the 1950s, when cultural commentators urged middle-class married women, such as herself, to find fulfillment not in politics but as consumers and as wives and mothers in the domestic realm. In one month, Hayes gained the signatures of 4,000 Villagers on petitions opposing the roadways. She published reports and letters to the editor in the Villager. Her coalition included local civic, business, and religious organizations.
The opposition to the roadway gained momentum, and influential individuals joined the cause, including Tammany Hall boss Carmine De Sapio, Village Voice editor Dan Wolf, civic leader Raymond Rubinow, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, New York University law professor Norman Redlich, local activist Edith Lyons, urbanists Lewis Mumford, William H. Whyte, Charles Abrams, and Jane Jacobs, and others. Throughout it all, Shirley Hayes maintained her commitment to the cause, distinguishing herself as one of New York’s great community activists of the 1950s.
After years of petitions, meetings, hearings, and negotiation, the community finally defeated the roadway plan in 1959. Villagers held a “grand closing” ceremony in the park. As a result of the Battle of Washington Square, Greenwich Village developed a national reputation as a locus of grassroots activism. Some two dozen neighborhood organizations confronted Robert Moses and his allies, stressing the cultural value of Washington Square and demanding a voice in determining the spatial form of their neighborhood. The victory by Villagers against the automobile contributed to a fundamental change in urban redevelopment, leading to an increase in citizen involvement in city planning. It also provided a model for other community mobilizations. Above all, the movement reinforced the notion of civic engagement—an idea gaining traction at the dawn of the 1960s.