Then there is the crowded, informal market of individual entrepreneurs trying to make a buck. On a given day, the park can be surrounded by eight hot-dog stands, two falafel vendors, and five fruit sellers, each of which can gross up to $60,000 a year. On the south side, a few dozen people (some with permits, some without) sell plastic bracelets, baseball hats, tube socks, and other merchandise on folding tables, and about 90 artists who perform and display their work.
In the view of the park’s purists, all this activity is a horrible jumble, making it more outdoor mall than place of passive recreation. Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe would rather limit the sprawl of artists, who operate under First Amendment rights and require no permits. “This is probably not what the Founding Fathers had in mind,” he says. “It turns the park into a flea market. All the space is taken up by selling.” The Union Square Partnership has itself come under criticism for the intense amount of programming it promotes, as well as its intention to hand the renovated pavilion on the park’s north side to a private vendor this spring. “It is a ridiculous plan to further privatize the park,” says Geoffrey Croft, the founder of NYC Park Advocates. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried has also complained about the increasing privatization: “We should not have to sell off pieces of our parks to pay for them.”
But Union Square Park’s ability to accommodate informal, small-scale commerce is what drives much of the store traffic along its perimeter. “Retailers continue to flock here because there are so many eyeballs and feet on the street,” says Kenneth Salzman, a commercial-real-estate broker and longtime neighborhood resident. The most obvious example of this symbiotic relationship is the success of the Greenmarket, which arrived in 1976. “The Greenmarket was the catalyst for the neighborhood’s revival,” says Jennifer Falk, head of the Partnership, which was formed soon after and has been integral to the park’s reconstruction. Over the years, the market helped create a secondary industry in upscale restaurants—beginning with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café—which in turn drew more people to the square, especially in the evenings. Jenny Schuetz, a professor of real estate at USC who did her postdoctoral work at NYU, says the Greenmarket acts as a destination that attracts people who are likely to make a day of it, shopping for shoes or clothes, having coffee or lunch, maybe going to the movies beforehand. “Once you have the stalls set up for this type of open-air shopping,” says Schuetz, “people are more likely to see the little businesses on the periphery as extensions of a larger market.”
The large chains recognize this. Whole Foods has gone out of its way to cultivate a relationship with the market, often buying leftover produce and featuring seasonal items from the farmers in its prepared-food areas. Along with Barnes & Noble, they allow non-shoppers access to their second-floor cafés, and their facilities serve as de facto public restrooms. “People love to come in and use the bathrooms; we’re famous for them,” says Sam Fishman, Whole Foods’ general manager. “Our feeling is ‘Come in, look around, occupy yourself looking at great-looking food. Maybe you’ll buy a coffee on the way out.’ ”
In a sense, Union Square acts less like an Olmstedian escape from urban life and more like a New England town green—a public gathering place to hawk and purchase wares. And some urban planners suggest that the park could handle even more commerce. Fred Kent, who, as founder of Project for Public Spaces, was responsible for the revamping of Bryant Park, has proposed creating an official artists’ market as a corollary to the farmers’ and crafts markets and suggests reestablishing the park’s northern boundary right up to the Barnes & Noble, doing away with 17th Street. “That way, instead of having 300 people just walking by, you could make the north side of the park a more desirable destination,” he says. “The more elements you have there, the better.” Kent is an urban designer; he’s most interested in making public spaces feel active and alive. But on this subject he sounds very much like Pete Nordstrom. “The best thing about Union Square,” Kent says, “is its uncontrolled chaos.”