Union Square: May 1, 2006
During those dark days, I found myself looking out of the window of my office at Union Square as it finished its long-awaited renovations. Every evening there were protestors against, first, the war in Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq. During the day, dogs played in the dog run, children swung on the swings, and the homeless dogs on the southwest corner and the homeless people on the west and north sides of the park had their vociferous champions. Performers danced and drummed and sang in the shadow of George Washington’s statue; boots representing all of the soldiers who had died to that point were arrayed there during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004. People entered and exited the subway; the daffodils and tulips came and went. Each October 2, Indians decorated the statue of Gandhi in the enlarged garden that had been created for him by the New York City Parks Department. A Bradley’s department store was replaced by Whole Foods; other stores closed and opened; and the Green Market expanded further into the park, joining the artists and the man who sells vegetable peelers in the daily whirl of New York City life.
In spite of the chaos unleashed elsewhere and the failures of American foreign policy, I began to see something comforting and inspiring about Union Square’s rhythms—the ebb and flow of people to and from work; office workers sitting outside and catching some sun on their lunch breaks; the dance and music performances put on during the summer by the Union Square coalition; the marches and rallies that ended or started there; the Mitzvah tank calling Jews back to the fold and the Mennonite choir and the Hare Krishnas offering a different form of homecoming. It seemed incessantly and undeniably plural, and in an age where everyone was being asked to be unum
, it was refreshing to feel part of the pluribus
without which the unum
It was then that I realized that perhaps Union Square offered something particularly American that we may have forgotten. It was about holding contradictions in place: where church and state were separate but testaments of faith were ubiquitous; where pluralism and difference were celebrated within the confines of the one, nation state; where you were free to be anything or think anything you wanted as long as you didn’t infringe on the right of someone else to be anything or think anything they wanted; where the urgent need to accept the rights of others and foster freedom had been from its articulation two centuries earlier in a constant struggle with the forces that wanted to stop others from getting either or both.
As Union Square was itself being improved and the space where the public could gather enlarged, was it possible I wondered to imagine a more perfect union for the United States’ public space: where individuals could, with a sense of common purpose, meet and disagree without violence or McCarthyite ad hominem
vilification; where there would be division but no divisiveness between the rural and the urban, religion and the state, rich and poor, even between human and animal? Just as Union Square had statues of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington, could the United States begin again to live up to the radical, revolutionary nature of its founding creeds and its greatest sons, and extend its notion of freedom to all of the world, with, this time, its revolutionary identity touched by Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence and social justice?
Just as Union Square held within itself the balance of public and private space, and public and private capital, could the United States recognize the wealth that lay in re-imagining its economy, whereby public and private goods were equal partners and the small and local commensurate in value to the State as the corporate and omnipresent? Just as Union Square encompassed urban density and open space, could the United States also encompass the value of density and importance of public transportation as well as sprawl and private vehicles?
This is the nature of The Union Square Project. It attempts to interrogate the prejudice that the city is somehow an unnatural bellwether for how a country judges its authenticity: that it is a home only for vice not virtue; the individual not the family; the esoteric and not the traditional. It seeks to challenge the notion that a happy and fulfilled life can only be found in private ownership, a maximum amount of space, and in the acquisition of more and more consumer goods; while also questioning whether the United States could be viable as a community without the entrepreneurial spirit and drive for self-improvement that is unleashed by a capitalist economy.
It envisions a country comfortable with diversity and the flow and thrust of human beings with different ideas and different ways of communicating ideas and yet asks whether, within that identity, there is, in some way, an American genius that underlies that very diversity—a diversity best captured by the tide of human beings and ideas through Union Square. And, ultimately, it asks whether the great revolutionary quest begun over two centuries ago can not only remain alive but even revitalize the concept of these United States.