BY THE VILLAGE SUN | As seen last week at Community Board 2, Shaman of The We Outside Crew and anti-police activists are not happy at all about how things have been trending lately in Washington Square Park. But the Washington Square Association sure is.
In an e-mail to its members this week, the venerable residents association says it can now foresee an “end to the unusual level of lawlessness” that started in the park this spring.
Meanwhile, the group is seeing progress on providing social services to those in need in the park, curbing amplified sound and bicycles, cleaning graffiti and more. Plus, no fireworks barrages have been seen since July 4, the organization happily notes.
The more than 100-year-old group, which touts itself as the city’s first and oldest neighborhood organization, represents locals living around and near the park.
In its Wednesday e-mail, the association reported that it is really liking how the landmark Village park has been so much more under control recently.
“The improvements in Washington Square Park during the last few weeks have been very encouraging,” the e-mail stated. “Many of our concerns have been met with initiatives that are showing traction and, if continued, will mark the end to the unusual level of lawlessness we’ve seen since April.
“The police are closing the park at midnight, the turnaround for graffiti cleanup is more consistent, amplified sound has been drastically reduced, there’s been less than a handful of fireworks launched in the park since July 4, and 10 different social-service providers are working together to help those in need,” the association said. “We are witnessing the cumulative effects of numerous efforts by numerous stakeholders… . Maintenance of these efforts will be key to building on the momentum.”
According to the association, police have been able to close the park at midnight — its traditional closing time — for the last two weeks without incident, “with the exception of one or two ‘flare-ups.'”
Some new tactics have helped with the closing time.
“Several soft policing strategies have had an enormous impact,” the association noted, “including increasing visibility through regular patrolling, adding the noticeable solar-powered [surveillance] camera near the arch and, starting July 10, using floodlights to illuminate the fountain area one hour prior to closing.”
A benefit of police regularly patrolling the park, the association added, is that it is, in turn, “empowering Parks Enforcement Patrol officers to encourage visitors to observe park rules, such as [on the use of] amplified sound.”
Also, Washington Square is currently seeing an increase in Parks Department staff due to Mayor de Blasio’s City Cleanup Corps pandemic-recovery hiring initiative. The program, which launched in April, is based on the 1930s New Deal’s U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, which put people to work in parks and forests during the Great Depression.
And, as a result of funds being found to pay them overtime, PEP officers are now in the park until midnight — four to six officers on weekdays and six to 10 officers on weekends.
With recent repairs to the fountain and public restrooms, among other things, the park’s maintenance is also looking good, according to the Washington Square Association. Playground sand is being regularly swept.
The park’s lighting, which has been spotty for years, is also improved, the group says. An ongoing issue is that the Department of Transportation manages most of the lights around the fountain plaza. But interagency communication has improved and so there are less lights out in the park now, while brighter LED bulbs are being installed, the association said.
As for graffiti, there is also now more than one worker assigned to remove it, so graffiti in the park is disappearing faster, to the association’s approval. Captain Stephen Spataro, however, said police still feel they need to keep up the fencing around the arch to protect it from being graffitied, as well as protect the officers detailed to the park.
In other issues, the park’s northwest corner, which had been closed since May due to drug activity, is back open — though only part time, Wednesday through Saturday afternoons, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Parks Department had been looking to fill this corner with more positive uses, among them the Washington Square Park Conservancy’s children’s programming, featuring Debra Hoskins a.k.a. Miss Debbie, the park’s youth activities coordinator.
All of the park’s programming is available for view on its new community calendar.
With increased programming and the regular presence of social-services providers, Parks hopes to open the northwest corner fully quite soon, the residents association reports.
In addition, the Mayor’s Office has signed a contract with a nonprofit group, Street Corner Resources, to provide “violence mitigation” and other services in the park on Saturday evenings. Founded to address gun violence and gang activity among Harlem’s youth, SCR also provides teenagers and young adults with greater access to employment, education, training, mental health and legal aid.
On Saturdays, SCR will bring to the park a mobile unit and 10 peer contacts “who will focus on violence mitigation/de-escalation tactics and providing youth resources. They will also be doing an assessment of the park to make recommendations,” according to the residents association.
In terms of social services being offered, a month ago, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer pledged to get the Department of Homeless Services to boost the number of days it serves the park from two to four per week. Since then, though, the association reported, the number of social-service providers in the park has mushroomed to 10, including D.H.S., the Department of Health’s Heat Program and eight nonprofits, and are offering services in the park seven days a week.
The providers are working with individuals with longstanding issues, such as long-term substance abuse, debilitating mental health challenges and chronic homelessness. And, according to the association, it’s working.
“We are already seeing the increased social-service presence have an impact,” the association said. “A chronically homeless man who had long resided in the park, kept a significant amount of his belongings there and had been harassing Parks maintenance employees, is just one example. He reached out to one organization canvassing the park about housing services, was connected to resources and, within weeks, was placed in an apartment in Williamsburg. He pledged to, and did, move all of his belongings from the park to his apartment. He still drops by the park regularly.”
Bikes in the freewheeling park are another concern for the Washington Square Association. Police and Parks officials met last week to discuss how best to address the situation. The message to cyclists will not be sent by tickets, though, but through “soft policing.”
“Because it is unsafe for enforcement officers to step in front of moving vehicles of any kind,” the association said, “the focus will again be on soft policing by encouraging people to dismount at the entrances and walk their bike through the park.”
Finally, New York University students will return Aug. 30, and the university will require staff and students to be vaccinated to be on campus. In addition, and to the Washington Square Association’s approval, the university reportedly “will expect students to be in compliance with whatever rules the Parks Department stipulates or face consequences.”
The Washington Square Association participates in a regular working meeting about the park with members of the Parks Department, New York University, Community Board 2, city and state government and nonprofits, like the Village Alliance business improvement district and the Washington Square Park Conservancy.
While the residents association is satisfied with how things in the park are heading right now, it’s not about to stop staying on top of the issue.
“What we are seeing [in the park] is the result of a myriad of efforts that are by no means over,” the association said. “We all must be vigilant in making sure this new momentum continues.”