New York City is no stranger to secessionist movements: Staten Island has flirted with the idea of separating from the other four boroughs more than once, and Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran an entire (unsuccessful) mayoral campaign on the premise that New York City should separate itself from New York State.
But whereas those campaigns have been influenced by things like economics or feeling slighted by the rest of the city (sorry, Staten Island), another group once tried to secede from New York City in the name of nonconformity.
A century ago today, a small group of artists made the bold move of declaring Greenwich Village “The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square,” even taking over the Stanford White-designed arch in the middle of Washington Square Park to prove their point. Tonight, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation will celebrate that group—which came to be known as the Arch Conspirators—at an event at Judson Memorial Church; but first, a little backstory.
At the time, the Village was still a bohemian paradise (rather than today’s ritzy neighborhood that uses its artistic legacy as a marketing tool), home to artists and playwrights and others who moved against the grain of conventional American society of the time. Some of the artists of the day—including surrealist Marcel Duchamp and painter John Sloan—decided to further affirm the neighborhood’s countercultural bona fides by staging a coup, of sorts, of the Washington Square Arch, and proclaim its independence from the rest of Gilded Age, capitalist New York City.
The ringleader of the spectacle was a poet named Gertrude Drick, who first noticed that the door leading into White’s grand arch was often left unattended. She got Sloan on board, who in turn recruited Duchamp and a few actors, and the Arch Conspirators hatched their plan.
On the night of January 23, the group snuck into the Arch, climbed the spiral staircase that leads to its roof, and had a drunken picnic there; they also tied paper lanterns and balloons to the arch, and recited poetry, because what else would a group of drunken self-proclaimed bohemians do?
Here’s how Ross Wetzsteon described the event in Republic of Dreams, his 2002 book about bohemian Greenwich Village:
Soon soused, the six Arch-Conspirators decided the moment had arrived. They tied their balloons to the parapet, and, in John’s words, “did sign and affix our names to a parchment, having the same duly sealed with the Great Seal of the Village.” As the other five fired their cap pistols, Gertrude [Drick] read their declaration, which consisted of nothing but the word “whereas” repeated over and over—surely Marcel’s inspiration—until the final words proclaiming that henceforth Greenwich Village would be a free and independent republic.
It didn’t stick, of course; by the next day, all that remained of the event were the balloons, and the caper was written off as a lark—“yet another example of bohemian tomfoolery,” according to Wetzsteon. (It did, however, lead to the door into the arch being locked permanently—perhaps not the effect the conspirators had intended.)
But for those who wish to embrace the free-spiritedness of the original event, you can do so tonight at Judson Memorial Church; there’ll be drinking, dancing, and communing with fellow Villagers “at a time when the future of inclusive environments feel a bit jeopardized.” (Amen to that.) The event will conclude with a lantern-lighting ceremony at the arch, just like those self-described bohemians did 100 years ago today.