Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park has been the heart of Greenwich Village for more than a century. It sits at the south end of Fifth Avenue, a timeless jewel in the bosom of the city. It is still a gathering place for people with causes and people who are interested only in people watching. It is a place for musicians to bring out their instruments for a trial run, for joggers who trace paths around the perimeter (always counter clockwise), for politicians and birthday parties, for chess players and kibitzers, for dogs and dog lovers, for strollers and sun bathers, for entertainers and outdoor concerts, for hotdog stands and water fountains, for onlookers content to watch the world go by. The list could go on and on.

It is a Damon-Runyon/O'Henry paradise, where stories abound in volumes not yet written. Surprises happen every day, every moment. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, O' Henry started romancing New York through his imaginative short stories with surprise endings. A little later, Damon Runyon made his way to New York City to work for Hearst as a reporter. His favorite hangout was Broadway, and his story "The Idylls of Miss Sarah Brown" appeared in his 1932 book Guys and Dolls, written in the Broadway slang of the time, which caught the ear and imagination of Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser who transformed it into one of the all-time great classic Broadway musicals.

Henry James (1843-1916) wrote Washington Square, a novel depicting the 1840s when the brownstones across from the park were a fashionable haven for the wealthy. Henry James was born in Washington Square. James strips the glamour from Washington Square in his story of disappointment and unfulfillment. He wrote the novel from a distance, while in London and later, Paris. It has been made into an opera and a film. Composed by Thomas Pasatieri, the opera Washington Square premiered in Detroit in 1976. The opera was revised. In 1977, the New York Lyric Opera, in residence at New York University, gave the new premiere of Pasatieri's opera in what is now Loewe Theatre on West 4th, about 50 yards from Washington Square Park.

While Henry James wrote of a fading aristocratic class in Washington Square in the 19th Century, O.Henry and Damon Runyon were the chroniclers of New York's coming of age in the 20th century, of the colorful characters that made up the city with their millions of stories erupting every minute.

Washington Square Park is a miniature, a mircrocosm of the great engine that is New York City. It has gone through many transformations. There were once luxury hotels that lined several sides of the park. I have roamed through the underground catacombs of these old hotels that the university had commandeered to use as offices and classrooms. There was a labyrinth of tunnels connecting the buildings, and I came upon the underground quarters of the valets and maids. I found kitchens and ironing boards, and the remnants of laundries. Entering these quarters was like descending into the past. These rooms had not been touched for more than half a century. There were clothes left on the floor, and old bottles and glasses on counters. I felt as though any moment someone might walk through the door from this past, this lost civilization of a vanishing aristocracy and its servant class. I wondered how these rooms had come to be abandoned. Why were they left in such disarray?

Sadly, I think we have lost our taste for short stories, for those prose portraits of vibrant people in the throes of life. The 20th century was an age of innocence, a coming of age. 9/11 2001 ushered in a new era, tough, impervious, and so brittle we appear always on the verge of shattering into incoherent fragments.

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