Even though I live in New York City, I seldom get to play tourist here myself. This weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to take a guided walking tour of Union Square operated by Big Onion Walking Tours. The tour was free this time since it was sponsored by the Union Square Partnership. Our guide was excellent and I fully intend to go back for some of the paid tours later in the year. This specific tour was particularly intriguing to me because I work in the area and I walk through Union Square every day.
The tour started off at the Abe Lincoln statue. Apparently this statue pissed off a lot of people when it was erected in 1869, just four years after his assassination. At that point, Lincoln was like a god to the American people and this statue portrayed him too much like a normal man.
Union Square was an apropos location to erect a statue to Lincoln since New York City had a mixed history with him. When the south seceded from the Union, New York City was very close to seceding as well since the south was the massive agricultural complex that drove the economy and New York City has always been very tied to finance. Luckily they did not secede, but the worst riots in the history of the United States took place around Union Square when the draft was started for the Civil War.
Moving west from the statue, we got to see some of the oldest buildings in Union Square. The guide passed around a picture from the early 1900’s and you can see that the exact same buildings with only minor modifications are still standing.
Obviously the above picture is a shot I took today, not the black and white one from a century ago. It is, however, incredible to see some piece of New York City so lasting. The second building from the left in this picture is the Decker Building, which I took a closer shot of as well:
This building is important for two reasons. First off, it is architecturally significant as it was one of the first buildings designed on the concept that form follows function. It was originally built as a piano store and designed to be elegant but creative to reflect the elegance of the pianos that they were trying to peddle. Secondly, it is the building where Andy Warhol had his factory and where Valerie Solanas attempted to murder him by shooting him three times after laying in wait in his factory.
Proceeding further south, we got to see a beautiful statue of a woman providing for the two emaciated children that remind me very strongly of Ignorance and Want from A Christmas Carol.
We could not get close enough to see the details, but apparently the statue is also a water fountain. It was erected as part of the precursor to prohibition and was one of the first public drinking fountains. It used to keep tin cups alongside the fountain so that anyone passing by thirsty could drink water instead of being tempted by the more easily available beer at a nearby pub.
In front of this statue, embedded into the ground is a copper map of Union Square from when it was first assembled.
It is still a bit covered in snow, even though the weather was finally pleasant enough to encourage melting, but the most intriguing bit is still visible: the stretch of street car roadway called Dead Man’s Curve. Back in the days before television (or even the movies), people were always in search of other forms of entertainment. As much as I can relate to the lack of TV, I’ve never seen something quite so macabre myself. This curve was so sharp and had such low visibility that someone getting struck by the street car careening around the corner was almost a daily occurrence. People would come to watch from nearby windows and place bets on each street car as to wether someone would die this time.
Offsetting this morbid story, there is a statue in the south west corner of the square that I have passed many times and I never noticed before: the statue of Mahatma Ghandi.
He blends in so well with the trees and shrubs and has such an understated figure that he is the least noted piece of art in the entire square.
Continuing counter-clockwise around the park, you can see another presidential statue. This time, George Washington astride a horse.
Pay close attention to his outstretched hand as it is very important to another location based art piece in another part of the park.
The next part of the tour is what really grabbed my attention. The center piece of Union Square is this flagpole:
It is officially named the Independence Flagstaff, but it was originally supposed to be named the Charles F. Murphy Flagstaff. Does anybody know who Charles F. Murphy was? I have been slowly working my way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (an incredible book that well deserves many posts once I have completed it). Robert Moses was one of, if not the, most powerful men in the history of New York City and he came to power through the political machine of Tammany Hall. Charlie Murphy was the most powerful leader of Tammany Hall and second most well known after Boss Tweed. In turns out that the entirety of Union Square is littered with Tammany Hall history! Before they really lost most of their power, the old Tammany Hall clubhouse was located in the south east corner of Union Square. The very last Tammany related building is still standing and is now the New York Film Academy.
After stopping by the statue of the Marquis De Lafayette, we ended the tour at the south eastern corner of Union Square to answer one of the questions that was burning in my mind from earlier that day. What in the world is up with that giant needle on the building down there?
It turns out that this entire building wall is a single piece of art meant to demonstrate how impossible it is to really capture time. The ripples are ripples in time, the needle is a reference to a metronome. And at the very top of those ripples, reaching out through time to us is the hand of George Washington.
It is a larger scale model of the same hand on the George Washington statue facing down from the south side of the park and shows us that it is the victors that get to reach forward and time and write history.
I don’t want to spoil all of the other details of the tour, so I will leave you here. I highly recommend reaching out to Big Onion Walking Tours and taking this same tour as I have only gently grazed on the layers of history they peeled back for me.