"It's very important for us to keep the ethnic and social diversity that exists here. This neighborhood has a long history of being a home to artists and workers and people of various colors and races and religions and people of very diverse incomes, and we'd like to keep them here.They give the area its punch and its charm, and anyway, we've got enough gentrified neighborhoods in this city already.''

- Evelyn Strouse,  co-chairman of the Union Square Community Coalition,
- New York Times - November 26, 1989

“In the shade of the leafy green trees that tower over Union Square Park, 25 New Yorkers sat down to a potluck supper, as if that were perfectly normal in a place occupied until recently by drug dealers and others who tend not to bake casseroles.  Many knew each other from their involvement in the Union Square Park Community Coalition Inc., which has organized the potlucks since 1980.

For longtime potluckers, the dinners are a symbol of their victory over the drug pushers who made the park so unappealing that for years neighborhood residents walked around it rather than brave the center. Now it is hard to believe that children did not always swing in unison in the playground, 

"The object originally was to let everyone know we were not giving up on the park. We would usually get police protection.’'
-  New York Times -July 17, 1987

Union Square Community Coalition History

The Union Square Park Community Coalition has a long and storied history of fighting for the park and the improvement of the surrounding area.

Founded in the spring of 1980 by a group of neighborhood residents concerned about the dangerous and deteriorated condition of Union Square Park, we are third oldest “parks group” in the city.

The city's fiscal crises had crippled the Parks Department. Half of its maintenance personnel were laid off. The majority of its recreation staff was fired. Years of municipal neglect had taken its toll. Basic maintenance and repairs were ""deferred." The pavilion's lower bathrooms were abandoned and its copper fixtures stripped by thieves. The layout of the park and the high bushes on the perimeter created protection for drug dealers, and, along with the decline of the pavilion, discouraged community use.

Click on the all the photos to enlarge

Lincoln Statue (1870) on the northern end of the park. A volunteer helps remove the graffiti and filth that covers the historic statue also by famed sculptor Henry Kirke Brown.   George Washington (1856) statue. In 1970/80's grafitti and filth covered Henry Kirke Brown's striking equestrian statue located on the southern end of the park. The city abandoned much of the parks' basic maintenance and operation including the historic pavilion located on the northern end of the park.

The USPCC (the word "Park" in the title was eventually dropped) dedicated itself to lobbying for park restoration, to increase funding and to encourage both community use and use by the neighborhood. To this end, the new organization (now a 501-3C non-profit corporation) engaged in repainting the bases of the statues, removing graffiti and inviting neighborhood residents to join in new plantings.

We also hired local entertainers to perform on Saturday afternoons in the pavilion for an audience that sat on the steps surrounding the sunken area, which formed a natural amphitheater. There were jugglers, puppeteers, folk singers, string quartets and many other kinds of performers, including Morris Dancers, medieval enactors and theatrical troupes. Our intent was to get people into the park and to educate the public that they were losing a valuable community resource. During this first Summer (of 1980) we held read-ins on the weekends at the 16th Street crosswalk. We invited neighbors to sit with us and read their newspapers. We supplied a large vat of free lemonade. See www.nytimes.com/1981/07/24/arts/weekender-guide-friday-eglevsky-in-westbury.html

The next summer we began holding pot-luck suppers on the last Wednesdays of June, July and August. These were held in the sunken terrace in front of the pavilion with the cooperation of the New York City Parks Department, which supplied tables, benches and chairs. Children used the play equipment installed in the sunken terrace. These open air picnics were very popular with people within and outside the neighborhood. All were welcome and a great variety of food was shared. These pot-lucks continued until the space was taken over by a temporary summer restaurant in 1982.

At about the same time we initiated our annual Halloween Parties for local kids, very popular events at which we supplied numerous kinds of material for the creation of costumes from scratch. We also held summer movie evenings with borrowed
films from the Donnell Library. The Parks Department was very cooperative in supplying a projector, screen, chairs and their wonderful PEP officers and Park Rangers.

A 1983 USCC spensored Halloween event in the sunken terrace in the area south of the Pavilion. The area is now a much larger playground due to the advocacy efforts of USCC. NYC Park Advocates and others who work tirelessly to fight for additional play space.   The playground in the sunken terrace. Community Board 5 has only two playgrounds, the least of any CB in the entire city. Yet the city would later take out the children's play area allow installation of a restaurant. Luna Cafe which operated for a decade to take its place.

We were relentless in keeping the public interested in the park and showing the Parks Department there was a real constituency for park renovation. To raise money, we held flea markets and bake sales, which also brought more people into the park and made them aware of our work.

Finally, due to our and others' lobbying efforts, the Parks Departmentembarked on the first phase of renovation of Union Square Park. After much resistance, the department allowed us to work with them in planning the new layout for a restored park. Our efforts paid off in Spring, 1988 when a new southern half of Union Square Park was opened to much rejoicing.

Performers in the sunken terrace play area during a USCC sponsored event for children in the 80s. "The Union Square Community Coalition, a local citizens group, sponsors noontime concerts in the park.”
- New York Times - November 26, 1989. Concerts were listed in the New York Times and New York Magazine.
The area surrounding the park had been changing; many loft conversions brought new families and lots of children and the renovated park became immensely popular. However, what was needed next for the park was real playgrounds for the children and we had another issue to fight for.

At about this same time a large building, Zeckendorf Towers, opened on the
old S. Klein's site on Union Square East. USCC and many others felt that this proposed development was inappropriate for the area. We had spent the previous year lobbying the surrounding four Community Boards and the New York City Planning Commission to control the rezoning of Union Square so
that the rest of the Square would not become similarly oversized. It took much mobilization and effort but we were eventually successful.

The changes in the area and the renovation of the park brought people into
the park. The new families, and those who had been fearful before, now began filling the park to such an extent that there was a shortage of seating throughout. We helped the Parks Department solve this problem by buying new movable chairs and tables. We also added special tables with attached seats. All are
very widely used.

During the 80's USCC sponsored pot luck dinners to encourage people to come to the park which had fallen on hard times due to the city's neglect. he dinners were held on the third Wednesday from June - August at 6 P.M. for more than a decade.
  USCC sponsored activities in the historic Pavilion.

But the popularity of the park brought with it other new problems. It became a magnet for holding both commercial and public-spirited events. Community Board 5 was overwhelmed with requests from all the boroughs and from many other regions. Prayer groups from as far away as North Carolina wanted to hold revival meetings in the park, and various ethnic and other organizations wanted to hold concerts, festivals, gatherings and celebrations there. There was a tremendous demand to use the park as a showplace for every type of enterprise. It reached the point where there was rarely a weekend when the park was not being taken over by some public or private group.

We pressured CB5 to limit these events and worked with them; we attended the monthly meetings of the CB5 Parks Committee and also those of the full board. Meanwhile, however, the city was encouraging private companies to put on events in the park for a price. These productions were often inappropriate for a small park and what was now a residential neighborhood. In essence, the city began selling park space for revenue. The soon-massive number of events also created a terrible noise problem due to unrestrained amplification. Most organizers ignored volume restrictions and the whole neighborhood was affected. This is an ongoing problem: with the beginning of warm weather each year, USCC has to plead with park officials and the police to monitor volume violations.

USCC Board Members 2004
On a more positive note, one of USCC's board members, Diana Carulli, and her helpers, painted beautiful labyrinths on the pavement of the North Plaza, which were visible and popular when the Greenmarket did not occupy that area. These were maintained by Diana and her crew and greatly enhanced a bare space. Many enjoyed meditating there.
Also, due to our efforts, historic building and areas were landmarked in the square and on nearby streets. We fought hard for preservation, without the support of our local business development group, and were fortunately successful. The beautiful restored Barnes & Noble building would now be an ordinary high-rise without our relentless efforts to maintain the character of Union Square. Restaurants and other establishments soon realized the potential in these lovely old buildings and Union Square became more vibrant than ever.

Lincoln Statue
We also pushed for new playground space every year. The temporary separate playgrounds the Parks Department finally created were woefully inadequate, and they eventually promised large permanent play space.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, New York University began a big expansion in our area, mainly by building new structures and renovating existing structures as dormitories. Most of these were quite large, and too many were built for our residential/commercial area. The University seemed indifferent to the existing community and we became one of manyorganizations jointly protesting this uncaring attitude and the area's overdevelopment. The task force these organizations formed made it known to NYU how unacceptable their swallowing up of our neighborhood had become. Unfortunately, the university moved so fast that the damage is done; part of NYU's outdoor campus is now our small, overused park. Safety at night, at least, is certainly not an issue; except on really frigid nights, the park is alive!

\To keep the park safe, lively and freely open for all is the mission of USCC. We do not intend to cease being caretakers of our beloved park and square. We support its use for protest and gatherings and feel gratified that it is returning to its former role as a public square. It is the closest this city has to a Greek agora. We rejoice in that and will do our best to ensure that it continues as such and is not misused.

"It's been a long time since Union Square was a source of neighborhood pride. But a group calling itself the Union Square Park Community Coalition is dedicated to restoring the good old days. They say they are trying to make Union Square once again ''a safe, useful and pleasant space for the neighborhood.'' In pursuit of that goal, they have been holding a series of free special events Saturdays throughout the summer. This week, the folk singer Joan Marinakis will be there to enter.  The show goes on at 1 P.M. in the pavilion at Park Avenue South and 16th Street. Sunday"

USCC Works to Improve Union Square with Labyrinths

Read More:

In Union Square Park, Potluck al Fresco
New York Times - July 17, 1987 - By Trish Hall

Union Square: Gritty Past, Bright Future
New York Times - November 26, 1989 - By Iver Peterson