Despite its compact size, the Flatiron District lays claim to two of New York’s liveliest and loveliest parks, Madison Square and Union Square. Roughly equal in size—about 6.5 acres each—they are popular meeting spaces and home to leafy trees, stately statues, playgrounds, and dog-friendly areas. What’s more, each is perhaps best known for its culinary contributions: Madison Square Park is home to the original Shake Shack, while Union Square Park is the site of the city’s largest farmers’ market.
Union Square Park is bordered by 14th Street to the south and 17th Street to the north. Its eastern border, Union Square East, is an extension of Park Avenue South, while its western border, Union Square West, links Broadway and University Place. Now a National Historic Landmark, it opened to the public in 1839, with a somewhat off-putting hedge and iron picket fence surrounding the central promenade. In 1872 Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, already acclaimed for their design of Central Park, removed the fence, planted more trees, widened the walkways, and added a reviewing stand, making the park more suitable for large public events. One such event, on September 5, 1882, was the country’s first Labor Day celebration; the parade of at least 10,000 workers occurred two years before Labor Day was officially made a national holiday. Another notable gathering took place during the economic crisis known as the Panic of 1893: Activist Emma Goldman was accused of “inciting to riot” a crowd of nearly 3,000 people and was sentenced to a year in prison.
While the park continues to be the site of periodic rallies, crowds are more likely to consist of shoppers at the Greenmarket, which debuted in 1976 with stands from seven regional farmers. Now upward of 100 farmers, cheesemakers, bakers, wineries, distilleries, and other producers sell their wares on Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays year-round. The park also hosts the annual Union Square Holiday Market, a New York version of the Christmas markets held throughout Europe; the 2018 market opens on November 15 and runs through Christmas Eve.
If you are coming to Union Square to shop, be sure to take a few minutes to also admire its works of art. The bronze statue of George Washington on horseback by Henry Kirke Brown, installed in 1856 as thousands watched, is the oldest of the New York City Parks’ sculptures. Brown also created the model of the park’s larger-than-life bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. The park’s bronze statue of Marquis de Lafayette, who fought with the colonists during the Revolutionary War, was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, better known for creating the Statue of Liberty. And the ornate Union Square drinking fountain, topped with a bronze depiction of a mother with two children, is one of the city parks’ oldest, though the metal cups that once were chained to the fountain, to better enable passersby to drink the water that flowed from the four bronze lion heads, have long been removed.
Madison Square Park sits between 23rd and 26th Street, with Madison Avenue to its east and Fifth Avenue and Broadway to its west. Although it did not officially open as a public park until 1847, amateur teams had for several years used the lot to play a game similar to the centuries-old British game of rounders, with a ball, a bat, and bases on a field. Once the park was developed, with its paved walkways cutting through the lawns, the local players who called themselves the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club relocated to a sandlot in New Jersey. Soon after, the Knickerbockers became one of the first professional baseball teams.
In addition to English elms, London planes, ginkgo trees, and five collections of perennials—camellias, daffodils, hydrangeas, redbuds, and witch-hazels—Madison Square Park is popular for the thousands of tulips that burst into color every spring. Among all the flora are a number of public artworks. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White collaborated on the eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Civil War admiral David Glasgow Farragut, which stands atop a nine-foot pedestal with bas-relief carvings. Other bronze monuments depict President Chester A. Arthur, Senator Roscoe Conkling, and Secretary of State William Henry Seward, perhaps best remembered for “Seward’s Folly,” the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The depiction of Seward, dedicated in 1876, is believed to be the city’s first public monument honoring a New Yorker.
The Madison Square Park Conservancy also commissions temporary installations. On display through April 28, 2019, is “Full Steam Ahead” by Arlene Shechet, a series of site-specific sculptures made of porcelain, wood, steel, and cast iron in and around the reflecting pool, which has been drained for the exhibit. William Wegman, Sol LeWitt, and Rachel Feinstein are just a few of the other artists previously featured. Arguably the first of the park’s temporary art installations dates back to 1876, when the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty was put on display as part of an effort to raise the funds to complete the monument. Visitors could pay 50 cents to climb to the balcony surrounding the torch. The segment of the statue stayed there till 1882.
No discussion of Madison Square Park would be complete without mentioning Shake Shack. Originally a hot dog cart, Shake Shack was given a permanent kiosk in 2004 to sell its all-natural Angus beef burgers, shakes, frozen custard, and hot dogs. Although Shake Shack outposts are now in 13 countries, you should not miss out a chance to grab a bite from the original, sit down on one of the myriad park benches or chairs, and dine alfresco on a sunny day. If you need an excuse, bear in mind that a portion of the proceeds benefits the park itself.