As the pandemic eases, the park has attracted crowds of young people who regard it as a place to let loose. Residents say the scene is out of control.
Erika Sumner stood on the steps of her house this month with her pet parrot perched on her head and surveyed the scene across the street, the entrance to Washington Square Park, as if assessing the damage left by a tornado.
The park’s iconic Roman arch had been scrawled over, the fountain gurgled with some kind of detergent stuffed in one of its nozzles, and glass shards, needles and pizza boxes littered the ground.
Just a day and a half earlier, late on a Saturday night, the police had swarmed around the marble arch to start clearing the park of partying visitors who had overstayed a new 10 p.m. curfew. But the revelers, many dancing and drinking as music boomed from amplifiers, did not want to leave.
A raucous confrontation ensued, as officers in riot gear pushed into the crowd while people threw bottles and chanted anti-police slogans at them. By night’s end, 23 people had been arrested and eight officers had been injured.
“It felt like war,” said Ms. Sumner, who is the head of the Washington Square Association and whose family has lived in the same house for nearly five decades.
The June 5 clash followed weeks of brewing resentment in and around Washington Square Park, with complaints about noise, drug use and crime animating a deeper dispute over public space and who gets to use it. Some residents who live in surrounding homes are bracing for a summer of chaos and sleepless nights, while the mostly younger visitors, already wary of the police, are questioning why the residents who live nearby should be able to make the park off-limits to them.
The battle over Washington Square Park comes at the tail end of a pandemic that altered social interactions and blurred the lines between nightlife and public space. Eschewing indoor clubs even after the city started reopening in April, people have flooded the park in the evenings, drinking inexpensive — and illegal — homemade cocktails packed in plastic bottles called nutcrackers.
The two groups — the residents and the visitors — are often divided by race, class and age. Many of the complaining residents are white, while the young people who visit the park are a diverse group from outside the neighborhood, attracted to the gritty glamour of the scene but also the notable absence — until recently — of police. In the parks where they live, some said, they are stopped and searched often.
Edith Molina, 19, came down from the Bronx. “This is the park you come to chill out,” she said. “In the Bronx, you have gang violence, and police run you out of parks. Here, police don’t do anything.”
On weekends the number of visitors in the park sometimes balloons to more than a thousand, packed into a 9.74-acre piece of land in the heart of Greenwich Village — an atmosphere made potentially explosive by an apparent influx of crack and heroin use in the park. The police said officers have had objects hurled at them as they tried to enforce the curfew, and at one point, a crowd blocked one of the streets around the park.
Images of the June 5 altercation recalled last year’s protests after the murder of George Floyd, and reignited a simmering debate about the police’s use of force. Mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in, expressing support for the police action, while Andrew Yang, the mayoral candidate, criticized what he viewed as “militarizing the park.” The next evening, the police stepped back, leaving revelers alone.
Since then, the police haven’t enforced curfews, even though they say they are set daily, leaving park regulars and local residents fretting that spotty law enforcement will only embolden revelers and drug dealers alike.
On Wednesday, residents met with the police to voice their anger over the conditions in the park, while protesters outside the building where the meeting was held criticized the police and the park’s rules. Earlier this week, Mr. de Blasio shrugged off the residents’ concerns. “We’ve had a number of nights where things went pretty smoothly,” he said at a news briefing.
But the chaotic scene in the park has sometimes turned violent. Early Saturday morning on June 12, a woman was assaulted and two men were slashed with a razor after a fight broke out, the police said. Around the same time, a 43-year-old man was punched and had his phone stolen. Hours later, around breakfast time at the Washington Square Diner a block away, a 27-year-old man shoved the diner’s 77-year-old cook into a window, shattering it and injuring him, after he was denied use of the bathroom.
The trouble in the park — and the question of what to do about it — has prompted hand-wringing among residents who live nearby. They consider themselves liberal, but now find themselves weighing their concern about the scene in the park against their own ambivalence about the police.
Many of them said they were in favor of having a stronger, more consistent police presence in the neighborhood but were worried that if they aired their views publicly, it would somehow make them appear less progressive. Some expressed fears about the apparent explosion in drug use in recent months, and one woman said her young daughter picked up a used syringe.
Carmen Gonzalez, a dog photographer in the neighborhood, said: “Once the sun comes down, the park changes drastically. It’s time to draw the line.”
Ms. Sumner said she was all for dancing in the park but said the current conditions were frightening.
“What pains me is that this park is for everyone, and now some people are too afraid to go inside.”
But the curfew and crackdown in the park has left some to wonder who “everyone” really is.
Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center at CUNY, said noise control measures in public space are often directed at young people of color.
“Is it really just about noise? What is it about really?” Ms. Low said. “This is another old-fashioned conflict where one scenario is that you want your neighborhood to appropriate the park and take care of it. On the other hand, it is a public space resource for the city.”
Ringed by expensive private homes and New York University, Washington Square Park has long exuded bourgeois-bohemian, rough-around-the-edges charm — a place where you could buy soft drugs and also attend a protest, where art students in fashionable clothes shared the same space as big-bellied rats.
Built in 1871 in honor of George Washington, the park was a hub for Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year, and more recently, the scene of pro-Palestinian and anti-Ethiopian government rallies.
The 10 p.m. curfew moved up the park’s typical closing time by two hours. But it did not appear to curtail nighttime activity — legal or illicit.
Recent video footage provided by residents showed fireworks blowing up in the sky and cars racing each other on the street in front of the park, their exhaust pipes spitting out flames and making popping sounds like gunshots. Footage provided by parkgoers painted a different picture — crowds of young people dancing and simply having a good time.
“It’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s bananas,” said Joshua Tavarez, 28, skateboarding on a recent day. “On one side you got people dancing. On the other, you got people smoking. You don’t know what to expect.”
David Ortiz, a 28-year-old man from Bushwick who goes by “Shaman,” draws people to the park for outdoor raves via Instagram.
Mr. Ortiz, who describes himself as an activist, participated in Black Lives Matter protests held at the park last year. But last month, during the park’s first curfew in late May, Mr. Ortiz was arrested on charges of using amplifiers without a permit. His sound devices were carted away, and he is now awaiting a court hearing to try to get them back.
Washington Square Park, he said, is “in the noisiest neighborhood in the world, so please, don’t tell me about noise complaints,” he added. “When they say, ‘Oh, it’s crazy, oh, it’s a jungle in there,’ well, welcome. The world is a jungle, boo.”
On a muggy weekday evening recently, skateboarders clattered about near the arch as Lil Reese’s “Traffic” played on a loudspeaker that was manned by three men in matching red durags. Teenage girls in cropped T-shirts, tiny Louis Vuitton bags slung over their shoulders, stood chatting next to a pair of women wearing hijabs. On the other side of the fountain, a band played songs by Jimi Hendrix while a bare-chested man tottered around. A couple, splayed out on the grass, was deep in conversation.
A little before closing time at midnight, things started to get rowdy.
A crowd amassed near the arch to watch a street fight instigated by Mr. Ortiz, who had arrived with two boxing gloves. They oohed and aahed, shoved and shouted, as they tried to capture the scene on their cellphones.
Shortly afterward, a real fight broke out. At the same time, young men on four-wheelers and motorcycles zoomed around the fountain. A man calling himself Freddy lit up a blunt and offered to sell some marijuana.
Then, someone put on the song “Cupid Shuffle,” and the crowd cheered and broke out into a line dance, and kept dancing past midnight. Paramedics arrived, responding to a call about an overdose. The police were nowhere to be seen.
In the distance, Ms. Sumner sat on the steps of her house, watching the scene and drinking a glass of prosecco, her pet parrot clinging to her dress.