On January 23, 1917, a group of Village Bohemians stole to the top of the Washington Square Arch, hung lanterns and balloons, had a picnic, talked about the issues of the day and declared Greenwich Village a “Free and Independent Greenwich Village.” Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this event.
Poet Gertrude Drick, painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, and Provincetown Playhouse actors Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and Charles Ellis got into the arch and up the spiral staircase. According to the Park’s Department, “these six so-called “Arch Conspirators” then spread out blankets, hung Chinese lanterns, tied red balloons to the arch’s parapet, sipped tea, shot off cap pistols, and conversed until dawn.” The event was immortalized by painter and participant John Sloan in his etching, “Arch Conspirators.”
From a parks perspective 100 years later, it is easy to perceive this event as a group of hooligans breaking park rules. However, when you look at the event from a historical perspective, it is a fascinating look at the central place Washington Square Park has had for the writers, actors, artists, and intellectuals who made up the “Bohemian” Village.
In the years before the First World War, the Washington Square neighborhood was shedding its old skin to emerge as the center of a young bohemian community. Artists, writers and radicals from all over the country were making their way to Greenwich Village and the Square to pursue their art and lend their support to the causes of labor, pacifism, and women’s rights. Immigrants, families with wealth, and this new artistic and intellectual class all met in the neighborhood, and Washington Square Park, with its open space, drew them all together.