New York City’s Universe of Union Square
In a city that overwhelms with its vibrancy, power and dynamism, what happened in the few square blocks of the universe of Union Square stands out as an astonishing legacy of achievement, inspiration, folly and courage. For this is hallowed ground: a place where, harmoniously or violently, triumphantly or dismally, a piece of America’s restless, progressive soul was and continues to be shaped. This is where:
• The Lenape nation dwelled in unscathed forests, Peter Stuyvesant homesteaded and brought in slaves, the city’s first genteel enclave became a mecca for the rich, and the grandest churches and most exclusive clubs, restaurants and hotels catered to high society.
• Abraham Lincoln framed his presidential campaign, proclaiming “right makes might,” and after Fort Sumter fell, Northerners converged in the nation’s first massive patriotic rally, setting the stage for Union Square as an epicenter for unfettered public expression.
• America’s first grand entertainment center premiered, American vaudeville was invented, “demigods” of the Yiddish theater crooned, the American “nightclub” debuted, the earliest film studios made seminal breakthroughs, and soon-to-be Hollywood moguls opened movie palaces.
• Some of America’s most acclaimed artists and literary lions achieved immortality.
• Dispossessed, alienated workers, intellectuals and political radicals rose out of immigrant slums, confronting the Establishment, shaping the modern American labor movement and earning Union Square applause and vilification as “the house of discontent.”
• Violent acts by such as the “Mad Bomber” and “Subway Vigilante” grabbed headlines.
• The “champagne sparkle” of the Ladies’ Mile reflected over urban shopping emporiums the like of which have never since been reproduced in such copious, mammoth, elegant scale – signaling the birth of modern department store retailing in America.
• The ignominy of “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall was trumped by the nobility of the Roosevelts, Peter Cooper and many other advocates and humanitarians.
• Esteemed, innovative schools dedicated to educating New York’s melting pot citizenry were born – New York University, New School, The Cooper Union, Baruch College, Stuyvesant High School among them.
• A community pummeled by economic and social decay plummeted from golden apogee to an afterthought – but with dogged spirit rose again, inspiring a city.
• And where, after the terror of 9/11, the community and then the city, nation and world came to mourn and heal.
This and much more is The Universe of Union Square. The story of a small piece of a giant city worth knowing and saluting.