The Universe of Union Square

On September 16, 2011 Jonathan Fanton commemorated the publication of The Universe of Union Square by Jim Gabbe, a book that highlights the area’s rich history and cultural life.

The Universe of Union Square – Thursday, September 16, 6:30 PM
National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South

First of all, congratulations to Jim Gabbe for this herculean task in putting together a wonderful book that is rich in history and filled with so many powerful images of the past and present of Union Square.

It is also nice to see so many people here with whom I have made common cause over the years.

I always love coming back to the Union Square neighborhood.   Every time that I am here, it seems that there is something new, something better.  The energy of this place is uplifting.

I am an historian by training so Jim’s book has special meaning to me.  It is quite simply the best book on a place that I have ever seen and visually, the most beautiful.  The chapter headings tell the story, “Democracy’s Stage”,  “A Creative Cauldron”, “Inventive Ventures”, “Enlightened Streets “ – we are the academic hub of New York.

The honor role of activists, writers, actors, scholars and political leaders who have lived around us is stunning.  Can you think of any other neighborhood in America with such talent, talent that rivals great periods of the past in ancient Athens or Rome or Enlightenment London or Renaissance Paris?

We come together at a low point in the history of Union Square and we rebuilt it.  I wish that I had known its rich history as we began our journey, but I now know our vision reflects the values so deeply embedded in the very fabric of our neighborhood.

Often when people look at the success of neighborhoods, they look at the achievements through the lens of bricks and mortar—the size and shapes of the buildings, and physical improvements.  And Union Square has its share of beautiful landmarks and new additions that have anchored the Square.

But, as Jim captures so well in his book, the Union Square journey of revitalization is as much about the people as it is about the physical space.  This neighborhood’s defining characteristic and strength is its diversity.  The very word “union” symbolizes the spirit and moral purpose that has animated our work together over the years.

In reading through this book, I enjoyed seeing the quotes from so many here that made a difference – Danny Meyer, Eric Petterson, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Gene McGrath.  Perhaps Gene said it best when he said “Business people, residents, the arts community, schools, city agencies have worked together believing we could make our community a better place”.

It was believers like Jim, his wife Jill and family that made this neighborhood the very special place it is today.    They are part of an extraordinary group in this neighborhood that saw opportunity in challenges and seized them with a sense of spirit, camaraderie and purpose.

And that is what made all the difference here in Union Square which has been a beacon in the universe of community development corporations all across the City.   We are all proud of Rob Walsh who was our leader at the critical moment when our path forward became clear and true.  Through him, what we have done together has been a model for other neighborhoods which have enabled the citizens of this great city to shape their own destiny.  That is democracy at its best as ordinary citizens unite together, putting differences aside, to forge a common purpose:  neighborhoods that are safe, welcoming, growing – avenues of opportunity in pursuit of a more just and humane world.

Jim, thank you for deepening the meaning of our journey together and providing the context that makes sense of life itself.

Thank you.