A History of Union Square

At the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street lays the historic area of Union Square. It is a park technically, but also a gathering place of art, ideas, passion, protest and personalities surrounded by a dense concentration of superlative shopping and dining of a quality one would only find in the trendiest parts of Manhattan. Union Square sits at the union of several famed NYC thoroughfares, but the name has long carried much more significance than just as a meeting place of streets.

The Origins of Union Square Park

Union Square is the section surrounding Union Square Park. The reason for there being a park, or public square, at this spot dates back to 1811 when the grid street plan that covers most of Manhattan was being planned. At the time, the major north-south avenues in Manhattan were the Bowery and Broadway, then known as Bloomingdale Road. In the original grid plan, the angle that these two roads would meet was considered too unwieldy to be practical, hence the development of an open, public space at the spot.

Originally named Union Place, the space was renamed Union Square in 1832 at the behest of Samuel Ruggles, a developer who was working on the nearby Gramercy Park. It did not take long for the area to become one of the most sought after by the city’s elite, with surrounding upscale residences and hotels presaging the neighborhood’s current trendiness and demand for apartments near Union Square. In the 1870s none other than Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the designers of Central Park and Prospect Park, helped finalize the design of the park, adding lush greenery and making the logistics of the space more conducive to large gatherings.

However, in the subsequent century-plus of history the area took on numerous other facets to become the complex and fascinating neighborhood it is today.

The Rialto

For current New Yorkers it is hard to picture the city’s theatre district being anywhere but Times Square. However, the original Broadway theatre district was literally on Broadway south of 14th Street. By the late 1800s Broadway theatres were concentrated on Broadway just off of Union Square, and the theatre district was known as The Rialto, after the section of Venice. This added to Union Square’s prestige just before the theatres moved uptown.

A Place for Protest and Ideas

Union Square still sees its share of vocal activism both from individuals and occasional larger protests. The history of Union Square as a rallying spot unofficially began on April 20, 1861, days after the capture of Fort Sumter by Confederate Troops. This day brought an enormous rally in support of the Union. Two decades later, Union Square hosted the very first American Labor Day rally/celebration in September 1882, and henceforth became a popular spot for labor union protests. The square is still one of many well-used rallying and general gathering spots in the city.

Union Square Today

In many ways, modern Union Square is modern New York: a blend of living history and world-class attractions for visitors and residents alike. When walking through Union Square Park, one can spot historical landmarks such as an 1856 statue of George Washington, before shopping at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or enjoying the wondrous menu at Max Brenner.


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