NYU students, street musicians, skateboarders, jugglers, chess players, and those just watching the grand opera of it all generate a maelstrom of activity in this physical and spiritual heart of Greenwich Village. The 9¾-acre park had inauspicious beginnings as a cemetery, principally for yellow-fever victims—an estimated 10,000–22,000 bodies lie below (a headstone was even unearthed in 2009). At one time, plans to renovate the park called for the removal of the bodies, but local resistance prevented this from happening. In the early 1800s the park was a parade ground and the site of public executions; the notorious Hanging Elm still stands at the northwest corner of the square. Today that gruesome past is all but forgotten, as playgrounds attract parents with tots in tow, dogs go leash-free inside the popular dog runs, and everyone else seems drawn toward the large central fountain.
The triumphal European-style Washington Memorial Arch stands at the square's northern
flank, marking the start of 5th Avenue. The original wood-and-papier-mâché arch, originally situated a half block north, was erected in 1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington's presidential inauguration. The arch was reproduced in Tuckahoe marble in 1892, and the statues—Washington as General Accompanied by Fame and Valor on the left, and Washington as Statesman Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice on the right—were added in 1916 and 1918, respectively.