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Washington Square Park, NY

“Omg! It’s been so long! How have you been?! Do you still live in NYC?”

This is the worst text you can ever receive as a person trying to make it work in a city that demands you work two jobs, commute two hours a day and you still live with roommates at the age of 26.

This text means “OMG! I haven’t talked to you in three years, but I remember you made a big deal about moving to NYC on Facebook and now I’m thinking of traveling. Can I crash at your place – eat your food – annoy your roommates – and then ask you to take time off work so you can show me around the city?!”

During my two-year stint in NYC, this happened around 50 times. Mostly those texts were ignored, but when it was someone you actually wanted to host… you had to be prepared or wind up in the foot-traffic jams of Times Square, 9/11 memorial and the statue of liberty. Best place to start your non-tourist tour?

Washington Square Park.

Washington Square Park has a delightfully macabre history. That section of the island originally was marshland that the Dutch India Trade Company had rented to African American Freed Slaves on the terms that they would pay tax to the company and that their children would be born into slavery, owned by the trade company. {The land was considered “countryside,” even though less than 2 miles away was Five Points - a five point intersection that acted as the city center for all things criminal and poor. It was the epitome of "melting pot" with immigrants from everywhere stuffed into ramshackle houses creating a festering cesspool for disease and death.}.

The Dutch were so proud of their efficient use of land, packing people efficiently into small spaces, making everything very walk-able. Eventually though, the cream rises to the top and the wealthy sought refuge from the stink, the lack of plumbing, the poverty and disease. Yellow fever hit. They moved northward.

The farmlands were reclaimed and that same land became a potter’s field in 1797. I had never heard of a potter’s field before. If you are unfamiliar – a potter’s field is a mass grave where they buried bodies of folks who couldn’t afford proper burials. With the mass outbreak of yellow fever, the potter’s grave was the final resting place of around 20,000 bodies.

During the course of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the cemetery/park became a place for public hangings. The hanging elm that was used is still alive and is located on the northwest corner of the park.

In 1862, the Astor families and other big names continued to move northward. Advancements had been made in plumbing. A well was dug in the middle of the park that supplied water to those who could afford the rents of 5th avenue. As reported by James Roman, “the residents praised the water for its clarity and softness.”

Today, the bodies have not been relocated. The well was changed into a fountain and still exists, sitting just next to the iconic archway, and is a center for community activity to this day. Without a doubt, your visit will give you plenty of people to watch - especially performers.

Washington Square Parks is a great place to start. It is just a short walk away from NYU, the old Astor residence, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (that fire that killed 146 in 1911 leading to safety standards in the workplace), and McSorley’s Old Ale House (the last Men Only pubs in Manhattan – now allows women).

Stay Backwords,

Nanette Nielson

Washington Square Park

Book – James Roman


Nanette Nielson is a classical music nerd who can’t live in one

place for too long. Recent habitations include New York City, Pocatello, Idaho and most recently, Portland Oregon.

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