Union Square Park

A Park for Protesters

Eight blocks south of Madison Square was Union Square Park. Where Madison Square Park was a respite from city life, Union Square Park was from its early creation an outlet for protests, demonstrations, and celebrations. Another former potter’s field, Union Square, originally named Union Place, became a public commons in 1815. In 1832, its name changed to Union Square, and in 1842 a fountain was built in the center of the square that received water from the Croton Aqueduct. Union Square Park, like Madison Square Park, was landscaped professionally. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were chosen to design it in 1872.

The function of the park as a venue for demonstrations has deep roots in the 19th century. After the fall of Fort Sumter, at the start of the Civil War, a mass meeting in support of the Union took place in Union Square on April 20, 1861. The New York Times published an article the next day with the headline: “THE UNION FOREVER! Immense Demonstration in this City. THE ENTIRE POPULATION IN THE STREETS. Over One Hundred Thousand People at Union-square” (April 21, 1861). The entire New York population was under a million at the time, meaning that this gathering marked spectacular outpouring of civic fervor. Patriotic celebrations continued during the war years. In 1864, the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair was headquartered on the north side of the square. Sanitary Fairs were held at various northern locations to raise money for the troops. Women became the movers and shakers of these events. The Metropolitan Fair was a success, raising $178,151.08 (New York Times, Dec. 6, 1864, p. 8). After the war, the rights of workers became an ongoing theme of Union Square demonstrations. The parade at the Labor Day celebration on September 5, 1883, went by the reviewing stand at Union Square. “When the procession passed the plaza there were between 6,000 and 7,000 men in line…” (New York Times, Sept. 6, 1883, p.8). Women’s suffrage was another cause for demonstrations and protest meetings. Once again, Union Square was the rallying place.

By the 20th century, students at the College of the City of New York were able to express their views by joining protests and demonstrations in the vicinity of the college. Union Square was the venue for rallies against closing night schools, May Day protests, suffrage protests, and anti-war demonstrations, any of which City College students might have joined. In 1967 The Ticker looked back at the history of Union Square. “In the heyday of the International Workers of the World, anarchists and communists, the square was the Common Man’s Hyde Park. Its inhabitants then were street -corner socialists, who embraced the then radical doctrines of social security and a minimum wage that are now the foundations of American labor law” (Unger, Ticker, Dec. 12, 1967, p.3). In the 1930s, strong opposition to international involvement in armed conflicts was cause for student mobilization. Madison Square Park became the site of a mass rally, in November of 1935. “Three hundred determined students who wanted to further demonstrate their peace consciousness, massed in Madison Square Park after the assembly mobilization….Seven months ago, on April 12, on the same meeting ground fourteen hundred School of Business students bolstered in numbers by eight hundred from Hunter, Washington Irving, and Townsend Harris repeated this same pledge. [Oxford Oath]” (Ticker, November 12, 1935, p.1).