FLASHBACK: A victory vs. drugs in Wash. Sq. Park

BY GABE HERMAN | The March 19, 1987, issue of The Villager showed how Greenwich Village history may indeed go in cycles, especially relating to drugs in Washington Square Park.

Even as current residents say that drug selling and using in the park is as bad as it’s been in years, a 1987 editorial in the newspaper lauded the “new” park after a police crackdown on the drug scene.

The editorial noted people of all walks of life enjoying the park on a Sunday. There were full playgrounds, working bathrooms, hot dogs for sale and good shows to enjoy at the fountain.

Cantor Irwin Gelman read the Megillah as Cantor Elliot Levine blew the shofar in Washington Square Park 30 years ago. (File photos by Stacey Rosenstock)

“The atmosphere was good natured and free,” the piece said. “We walked away feeling great.”

The difference was said to be night and day, as the drug marketplace had reached troubling heights.

“It is easy to drift into acceptance of the status quo,” the editorial observed, adding, “That’s one reason things got so bad in Washington Square Park and why the steady, incremental change for the worse continued until some people said ‘Enough!’”

Among those to thank for the campaign that caused the police crackdown were playground mothers, resident protesters, the Washington Square Association, N.Y.U. officials, the Parks Department and “many, many other officials and activists who spoke out, wrote letters and badgered officials,” the editorial said.

Noting past racial incidents in the park, which were then followed by the drug infestation, the editorial said there had been many promises, and many attempts, to clean up the park over time.

“Well, what we see now is no promise; it’s a reality.”

Jesse Math dressed as a king at the Purim parade in Washington Square Park 30 years ago.

A short counter-opinion, however, from William Gaines of First Ave., was also included in the paper. He wrote that a better situation in the park probably just meant that the drug problem had moved someplace else.

“What you see banished from Washington Square Park right now isn’t bad little boys who have gone home to be good ones,” Gaines wrote, “but people plying their nasty trade who are simply plying it someplace else.”

Gaines’s words were perhaps an ominous foreshadowing of the drug problem that has now returned to the park, according to local residents.

He continued in his 1987 piece, “These criminal elements can wait far, far longer than the police for something they want… They’ve got time on their hands and it is also on their side.”

Also in the 1987 issue was a Page One story about Village Councilmember Carol Greitzer accusing the city Department of Transportation of towing cars to meet quotas and produce revenue, instead of only for its stated promise in residential areas to clear traffic lanes.

“When you have over 500 tows a month in the area between 14th St. and Houston St., you just know that this is done not for purposes of traffic controlled or so-called clean air strategies,” Greitzer accused.

Page One photos showed the first Megillah Reading and Purim Parade by the Lower West Side Jewish Community Council, held in Washington Square Park on March 15. One photo showed Cantor Irwin Gelman reading while Cantor Elliott Levine blew a shofar (ram’s horn). The other photo showed a young child, Jesse Math, dressed up as a king.

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