Dorothy Maskara, a high-school student, skateboarded over to Washington Square Park on Wednesday afternoon and wrote NO C*PS IN WASH in purple chalk on the ground next to the fountain. She was reacting to what she had seen on the night of May 22, when police vans and dozens of baton-wielding cops in riot gear arrived to clear the park of people at midnight. “It was Saturday night! It was just a bunch of teenagers and stuff,” says Maskara, 17, who said she saw officers use a bike to push an older man to the ground, and spent part of the evening trying to find a medic for someone who began having an anxiety attack after the surge. “It was just an abuse of power.”
The following weekend, the NYPD showed up in force to close the park two hours earlier, at 10 p.m., and the police have since announced that it will maintain that curfew on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays into the immediate future. An NYPD spokesperson said that the large, sometimes violent gatherings of people who refused to leave the park had made the clampdown necessary.
The decision to close one of Manhattan’s most iconically anarchic spaces at the same hour as your average Gristedes has riled up many, like Maskara, who see the park as a second home. Many also questioned the logic of shutting down an open space like Washington Square while a pandemic is technically still going on. But others who live in the neighborhood think the response is long overdue — and still inadequate. “It’s gnarly,” says Kim Hastreiter, a writer and editor who’s lived near the park since 1995 and used a park bench as her office during the pandemic. “It’s definitely like a wild rave or something every night.” Others told Curbed that they’re sick of trying to fall asleep to fireworks, booming sound systems, and revving dirt bikes, only to wake up to a trash-strewn landscape in the morning.
Washington Square Park has become a flashpoint of debates about policing and public space in the city as the warm weather and vaccine-fueled optimism are awakening debaucherous impulses in New Yorkers after the longest year. “On a per-square-foot basis, it’s one of the most intensively used parks in the world,” says Adrian Benepe, the former Parks commissioner who is now on the board of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, the public-private partnership that helps with management and upkeep. “I think the issue here is, the city allowed basically an anything-goes policy for the past year because of the pandemic and protests, and now they’re trying to reel it back in.”
The loud weekend parties seem to be at the center of this fight. A guy selling nutcrackers in light-up bottles in the park on Wednesday night told me that some are planned ragers that spread the word on social media, whereas others are dance parties that just break out spontaneously. One park regular who goes by the name of Grimmey Sheisty and was selling weed edibles from a folding table said that he sees people filming loud music videos on the weekends, which often get rowdy and might be the source of some complaints.
However, several park regulars and neighbors question whether things are any wilder than in a normal June. On a Facebook group for the neighborhood, some members speculated that the Citizen app, which blasts users with unconfirmed crime reports, may be amplifying these fears.
The park parties may begin to peter out now that bars are open until 4 a.m., but the other complaints aren’t as easy to address. Neighbors say they’re worried about the increased presence of unhoused people and drug use in the park. That unease was on full display last week in a classic New York Post front-page story, headlined PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and alleging that the flowerbeds were full of syringes, accompanied by photos of mostly Black people smoking unidentified “drugs” (which could be newly legal weed). After the Post story ran, the Parks department fenced off the park’s northwest quadrant, the dimly lit section known as a place to buy, use, and sleep off hard drugs. The Conservancy posted on Facebook that the area was closed so it could be deep-cleaned, but there were no signs of any cleaning going on this week.
But according to police, it was not open drug use that precipitated the closures. Asked for an official reason, the NYPD provided a list of five specific incidents of “disorderly behavior” that led to the 10 p.m. shutdowns, including one on April 10 when officers faced off with a group that refused to leave and threw about 15 bottles and other objects at the cops, according to the NYPD. (The other four incidents on the list took place after police were sent in to clear the park during the first crackdown in May.)
By contrast, the weeknights since the crackdown have offered a different scene altogether—one with barely any cops at all. I spent several hours in the park on Tuesday and Wednesday night and could not find a single police officer, even as fireworks showered over the fountain and a crowd of about 100 people danced to “Gasolina” around midnight on Wednesday. That’s actually been a sore spot for nearby residents. “There’s no fucking cops,” says Joanne Milazzo, 75, who’s lived a block away from the park for 50 years. She says the park is in worse shape than she’s ever seen it. “I’ve never seen cops on foot patrol in the Village, ever.”
The biggest police presence, according to Hastreiter, actually seemed to appear last June, when a throng of officers guarded the arch after it was vandalized during the Black Lives Matter protests. She’s pro-anarchy, she says, but was scared off from walking her dog in the park after a neighbor shared a video of a shirtless man manically hurling empty beer bottles into the plaza in the morning hours. “It’s maybe not fixable, because a lot of it has to do with social services,” she says.
As the clock ticked past midnight on Wednesday, no one came to close the park, and the crowd dancing near the fountain grew larger. Several people hoisted light-up nutcrackers into the air and fist pumped along to an Icona Pop song blasting out of a giant speaker, screaming the chorus into the night: “I don’t care, I love it.”