Places that Matter

Union Square Park

click on image for slideshow
Union Square Park, 9/13/2001, photo by Martha Cooper
Union Square Park, 9/13/2001, photo by Martha Cooper
Union Square Park, 9//13/2001, photo by Martha Cooper
Union Square Park. Elis Shin, 2012
Union Square Greenmarket. Elis Shin, 2012
Squash varieties. Union Square Greenmarket. Elis Shin, 2012
A park and popular gathering space that offers a flagship Farmers Market
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

On September 11, 2001, New York filled with such overwhelming sorrow that personal rituals of grief spilled out of private lives and homes into public spaces, especially Union Square. Although the square was not an officially designated site for public grieving, it was the farthest south most people could go once the city below Fourteenth Street was closed off. It became the epicenter of the city’s collective mourning. By three in the afternoon of the eleventh, people were inscribing their feelings on sheets of butcher paper, taping up their “Missing” signs. Day after day, people came to stare at the homespun memorials, weep, leave flowers and candles, even demonstrate in peaceful protest.

Protest, grief, and celebration have always found a home in Union Square, where the temperature seems to be a little higher than elsewhere. It started in 1882, when nearly twenty-five thousand workers marched in the first official Labor Day parade to demand an eight-hour working day and the end of child labor. In 1910, garment workers rallied in the square for better working conditions and, just one year later, their pleas ignored, they marched here from Washington Square, mourning the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In 1916, activist Emma Goldman delivered a passionate speech about birth control. One of the few radicals skeptical of the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union, she is said to have remarked that she never wanted a revolution that didn’t allow people to dance–and dancing is exactly what they tend to  do at Union Square  protests. During the Republican Convention in 2004, the square became the focus of protest. The march of 500,000 people past Madison Square Garden ended here, and so did the candlelit vigil during President George W. Bush’s acceptance speech. Even on peaceful days, the southern end of the square, along Fourteenth Street, is home to sign-carrying picketers or speakers propagating conspiracy theories.

Since 1976, this postage stamp of urban space has also been home to the Union Square Greenmarket, the oldest, largest, and most diverse of New York City’s  farmers’ markets. Barry Benepe, a native New Yorker, art historian, and urban planner, started them to resuscitate what he called “metropolitan” farmland and farmers (those within a 120-mile radius of New York City) and to offer New Yorkers fresh, good-quality food. He and his associates also had urban reform in mind. By the 1970s, Union Square had been devastated, brought down by disinvestment, the city’s fiscal crisis, government neglect, drugs and crime. Benepe believed that “farmers selling produce from their trucks would start conversations, help resuscitate neighborhoods, and brighten the aesthetic of the troubled town.” With the aid of agricultural specialists at Rutgers and Cornell universities, word spread, via agricultural agents and associations, to small- and medium-scale farmers throughout metropolitan New York and New Jersey.