Put Washington Square Park’s “Piano Guy” on the City Payroll

If you’ve ever visited New York City’s Washington Square Park, chances are good you’ve seen and heard Colin Huggins playing classical music on his piano. Huggins is incredibly talented — and he’s also homeless. Why not make him a city employee?

Pianist Colin Huggins plays the piano in Washington Square Park, New York City, on September 12, 2020. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

When I show up on Easter Sunday to hear Colin Huggins play his Steinway on the east side of Washington Square Park, I find the pianist wrapped in a black cape, sitting on top of the baby grand piano, just outside the gates. He’s not ready to play.

Huggins is feeling anxious and depressed, as he often is these days. He seems apologetic about it, even concerned that his sadness is contagious. “I don’t want to cause you pain,” he emphasizes. He takes time to do some deep breathing. After a few more minutes, he rolls the piano out into the park.

Everyone who walks by stops to look. The Steinway is decorated on its left side with the words, “This machine kills fascists,” a Woody Guthrie reference bestowed upon the instrument by an ex-girlfriend of the pianist. Huggins puts out a tip jar next to a vase of daffodils.

The musician begins to play a selection from Chopin. This draws even more people to the piano, and the growing crowd listens raptly. Huggins, who is self-taught and has played for the Joffrey Ballet, plays with skill and feeling. A mom stops with her kids; even her sullen preteens look amazed. A young woman wearing yoga pants, walking a dog, takes a picture on her phone. Others sit down on benches, looking to stay for a while. No one seems to be in a hurry. It’s a shared moment of collective joy on a slightly overcast, chilly spring day.

But Huggins stops after about twenty minutes. A dog barks. Huggins woke up “in a funk” this morning, he explains to the attentive crowd. He is worried he is giving his bad mood to “everyone and their pets.” He’s only going to play one more piece, he says, and then he will take a break.

Huggins, forty-five, also known as “the piano man of Washington Square” or simply “the piano guy,” is iconic and beloved. He gets emails and letters from people all over the world who appreciate his park concerts. It’s not unusual for audiences to be moved to tears or lie under the piano while he plays. Huggins is even promoted as a neighborhood attraction on the Washington Square Hotel’s website.

But over the past two years, Huggins has become homeless and increasingly distressed. Despite the joy he brings to so many, it’s hard for him to make a living. The park itself is a more disturbing place, with the northwest side especially bearing the signs of the city’s crises of housing precarity and drug addiction. Huggins finds it harder to connect with audiences, he says, and he has to cope with more mean, antisocial behavior.

The isolation of the pandemic took a toll on the deeply community-minded artist and his audiences. “Humanity isn’t designed to exist as seven billion individuals,” he reflects. “We’re designed to exist as communities and friends. Yes, we’re exchanging germs, but we’re also exchanging ideas” — he gestures to the space between us, as he often does, to indicate connection or community — “and smiles. I like seeing you smile.”

“When I first got back to performing, it’s like if someone was in an accident, a multiple-car pileup with deaths. And I walk up and am like, ‘Would you like to hear a song?’” He still worries about how the pandemic has damaged New Yorkers and is unsure how to reach them. “People aren’t in a state of mind where they can fully appreciate music.”

Huggins used to have spaces to safely store the piano when he wasn’t playing. Those arrangements have fallen through. He also lost his longtime home, an apartment on St Mark’s Place. When he couldn’t play throughout much of 2020, when people were told not to gather in crowds, even outdoors, his $2,500 rent was subsidized through a city program that pays directly to landlords to keep low-income tenants in their homes. His landlord, however, resented the policy, and when the pandemic-inspired eviction moratorium was lifted, he took the opportunity to throw Huggins out on the streets. That apartment is now $4,000 a month, Huggins says.

Huggins playing piano in Washington Square Park in January 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

Huggins goes to stay with his parents in Virginia sometimes but keeps coming back to the city. “New York is my home.” He briefly rented a small room after losing his apartment, but there wasn’t enough room for the piano, so it didn’t seem worth the money. These days, he struggles to find shelter for himself or the piano. Sometimes he sleeps on top of it.

On Easter Sunday, everyone is kind. People seem eager to hear him play, in awe of the miracle of a piano and accomplished musician in the park. But Huggins has encountered too much callousness lately and seems too scarred by his recent experiences to enjoy the love. Recently, a man with a plastic toy rifle banged on the piano and broke off some of the black keys. A couple days later, Huggins says he awoke at dawn to find police officers cracking their batons over the instrument. Such vandalism has worsened in recent weeks and created a new crisis in his life.

Since our initial interview, Huggins tells me the piano has become unplayable, both from so much exposure to the outdoors and from its defacement by unkind or damaged park denizens. Online, too, he faces cruelty: when he promotes his Venmo on his Instagram, or notes the hardships he’s facing, many Instagram commenters react with derision and reproach, telling him to get a job or get “help.”

Homelessness is often blamed on mental illness, but it’s just as true that lacking a home puts immense stress on a person’s psyche. Huggins is clearly not okay. While everything he says is rational, he was, even before the piano’s recent breakdown, visibly too distressed to do the thing he loves most.

Huggins is frustrated that people who do nothing useful for society are rewarded with luxury homes. “A lot of these penthouse apartments, I’ve visited a few of them on occasion,” he muses. “Very few of those people worked for these places. They either inherited them or they made a silly computer app that makes fart sounds, and people find that entertaining, so they made half a billion dollars. I wish that these resources, these spaces, could be given to people, like me, who are trying to benefit the whole society.” He laughs. “I’m awesome! I will make great stuff that will benefit everyone.”

Indeed, Huggins notes, many people living in luxury got there through actively causing harm to society. In contrast, the system punishes people like him who “want to return vibrancy here, make it even better and more alive, more loving and more exciting, more like what people think of as New York.”

He says he used to make $40-50 in an hour playing in the park. Now he’s lucky to make that much in a day. He’s upset that people don’t seem able or willing to contribute more, and “they kinda look at me and are like, cool, we’re not helping you. I’m trying to better understand their behavior and not let it make me too sad.”

People lying underneath Huggins’ piano as he plays in spring 2021. (Wikimedia Commons)

I tell him that at Jacobin, we feel he’s providing a beautiful public service that should be supported by the city. After all, his performance is free and open to all, and vastly improves a public space.

Huggins is initially unsure about this idea. “I have felt that if I’m doing my job right,” he explains, “and providing something that people love and benefit from, that I should be able to get the money from them.” He’s skeptical of work supported by sources other than the intended audience, citing the niche, elitist nature of the grant-funded theater world, which “doesn’t have the community-building nature that my work has.”

His Washington Square Park performance, by contrast, he says, is inclusive, reaching “people who are young, old, from all different socioeconomic groups, all different races, people who know classical music and love it, connoisseurs, and people who have never heard a classical piece in their life. I try to create something that is inclusive, doesn’t exclude anyone or make anyone feel they can’t be part of it. Which is hard to do because people are so different!”

After he’s been talking for a while, he acknowledges my perspective. “Now that I’m listening to myself,” he muses, “I’m like, why doesn’t the city just support me?”

At times, the United States has supported artists in the same democratic spirit that Huggins offers his work. During the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid artists to create beautiful public murals and other work, an initiative that grew out of communist organizing. You can still see many such WPA works in New York City, from the stained glass windows at the James Baldwin School to the Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx General Post Office — a reminder that governments can support the human beings who make our public spaces beautiful and create the conditions for such artists to create and to serve the public good.

Two people working on a sewing project as part of the Works Progress Administration. (Library of Congress)

Governments can also do their part to make high culture more accessible to everyone. In the 1940s, when unions, communists, and socialists had more power in New York City, ballet, opera, and classical music performances at the City Center were subsidized, allowing New Yorkers to enjoy such entertainments for as little as $1 per ticket. Today, New York’s cultural institutions have been thoroughly privatized, and tickets are expensive. Huggins is trying to bring culture back to the people and to survive while doing so. The least the city could do is provide shelter for him and his instrument.

Until that happens, our only collective way to support the artist is through crowdfunding. It’s a shoddy neoliberal substitute for solid government support but at least it offers an outlet for our collective desire to help one another create and gives this musician a chance to make it work.

That Easter Sunday, people walking through the park were ready to hear music and support the man making it. When he announced that his set would be short that morning, the audience looked disappointed but grateful for the Chopin interval they’d just shared. Huggins tells the audience that his Venmo, “everythingwillbeok,” is on the tip jar. A group of people walk up and take out their phones to contribute. But Huggins has seen too little generosity of that kind lately, and now the Steinway needs to be fixed.