Union Square: Activism by Design
Union Square is known today as a site of public gathering and for expressions of discontent. This is built upon Union Square’s rich, multi-layered history as a public space in Manhattan. The name of the park comes from its location within the downtown area, placed between, or at the “union,” of the then-Bloomingdale Road and Bowery Road, which is now Fourth Avenue and Broadway. Only thirty years after it was designated a public space by the State Legislature in 1831, despite its fencing and narrow sidewalks, Union Square evolved into a space where mass demonstrations, rallies and protests took place.
The above illustration displays a pro-Union rally at the start of the Civil War, organized at the southeastern corner of the park in response to the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. There was another Civil War rally in 1863 when Irish immigrants gathered in the park to riot against the draft. These rallies collectively furthered the identity of Union Square as an active civic space and influenced the redesign of the park by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux following the Civil War.
Olmsted and Vaux redesigned the park “to meet the public requirement of mass-meetings,” employing democratic practices by removing the fences, the hedges and opening the sidewalks. Unlike Central Park, the main use of Union Square was less for residents to traverse the landscape, and more for them to occupy the space and to be heard.
On September 5th 1882, only one decade after Olmsted and Vaux’s work was completed, over 10,000 workers convened in Union Square after marching along Broadway, making it the first-ever Labor Day in the U.S. The labor organizers followed similar tactics as those used by protesters at Union Square during the Civil War, where separate groups would converge onto the square marching from different areas of Greenwich Village. The protesters also chanted and carried banners to further communicate their demands. During the labor movement, Union Square’s location was a promising space for the working-class to assemble and to be heard, because it was centered between the neighborhoods of consumers and the neighborhoods of producers. The large protests at Union Square garnered national media attention, inspiring the movement to grow across the country.
From 1900 to 1930, Union Square maintained a crucial role in the labor movement in New York City, where many progressive demonstrations took place and were heard and seen by politicians. The women’s suffrage movement also held demonstrations in Union Square in the early twentieth century. By 1928, Union Square was torn up for subway reconstruction, just as tensions increased between laborers and government.
When the square reopened in 1930, it was clear that the work of Olmsted and Vaux was erased in the process. The newly-designed space reflected a memorial park and controlled more open space with new plantings and monuments. These efforts did not completely rid progressive demonstrators. In March 1930, over 35,000 people gathered in Union Square for a demonstration demanding support for the unemployed. The city’s response to this demonstration was met with police and firefighters hosing down protesters, ultimately turning the march into a riot.
Throughout the next few decades, the square’s design shifted away from public assemblage, as more and more businesses voiced concern for the economic vitality of the surrounding commercial area.
In the 1970s, the park fell into disrepair. In 1985, Mayor Edward Koch opened up the park with more accessible paths, installing a central lawn and creating a new plaza at the south end of the park. These renovations also dedicated a new monument of the social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi at the southwest corner of the park.
Protests and demonstrations continued to find their way to Union Square through the early part of this century, continuing today. Today the square is often filled with protesters demanding changes to our criminal and social justice system.
Although many of these protesters herald from other neighborhoods in the city and beyond, their ability to gather in Union Square and other historic public spaces cannot be overstated. The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed in our Constitution, but without accessible public spaces in New York, that right becomes harder to fulfill. We must be vigilant to continue to protect historic public spaces like Union Square to ensure that all voices in our democracy can and will be heard.