Anything Can Change, Even if it’s Set in Stone

Sometimes it feels like things are so entrenched that change is impossible. But anything can be changed, even if it’s set in stone

Washington Square Arch, New York City — June 2017 © Renee Fishman

Each time I stand in Washington Square Park, I am struck by the imposing gravitas of the arch. It is dwarfed in size by the huge buildings that rise across the city today. But in terms of its cultural place, it dwarfs all of those modern structures. I marvel at how it must have been built.

I am rarely impressed by the new skyscrapers that pop up in Manhattan. Most of them could be in any city. They are uninspiring to me.

But this arch, this is different. This is distinctive. This is testimony.

Then I think about the fountain, and how it aligns perfectly with the center of the arch.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Things Appear Entrenched

For most of its life, the fountain was off-center, at least with respect to the arch to Fifth Avenue. It was centered on the East-West axis.

A fountain is not something that you would think is easy to move. It wasn’t.

As you might expect, the renovation of Washington Square Park that involved moving the fountain was heavily contested.

When something is a certain way for so long, you think it will always be that way. You can’t conceive that it will ever be a different way.

You know that expression, “nothing’s set in stone”?

Well the fountain in Washington Square Park was set in actual stone. It was as entrenched as a thing can be. If there was something you might expect not to change, the fountain in Washington Square Park would be that thing.

Who moves a fountain?

Someone with a vision for what it could look and feel like if the center of the fountain aligned with the center of the arch.

Someone with the audacity to ask:

Wouldn’t it be great if the fountain and arch lined up with Fifth Avenue?

How Change Begins

This is how change begins: with one person who dares to ask three questions:

  • Why is this thing this way?
  • What if it were a different way?
  • How can we take it from the way it is now to that other way?

I don’t know who specifically asked those questions about the fountain in Washington Square Park. They may not have been asked in this specific form.

But someone asked them in some form.

This initiated change.

The Pain of Change

They jackhammered the foundation. They excavated the area all around it.

Uprooting. Chaos. Disruption. Destruction.

It was loud and inconvenient. Painful.

This disruption, and the pain involved, is why most people resist change.

The Agony of Building

For a visionary, the disruption is tolerable. It’s what comes next that is agonizing.

A visionary’s ability to see things as they could be exists in tension with the fact that big visions take time to come into form. The most difficult skill for a visionary to master is patience.

After the excavation in Washington Square Park, a new foundation slowly took shape, laid down brick-by-brick in a slow and painstaking process.

One day, at last, it was finished. The fountain aligned with the arch.

Adjusting to the New Form

Once the renovation was complete, the center of the park felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Like it always should have been this way.

Eventually the newness faded, as it does. People visiting for the first time would never know that it was ever different. The fountain sits in its place, aligned with the arch and with Fifth Avenue. 23 feet from where it had been.

Whenever I bring someone to the park and share the story of how the fountain was moved, they ask: why wasn’t it like this from the beginning?

Because nobody thought of it.

Until someone did.

Periodically I stand in the middle of the plaza and remember that it wasn’t always like this.

And that’s when I remind myself:

If you’re willing to ask the right questions, and if you’re willing to endure the pain of disruption and destruction, you can change anything.

Even things that are set in stone.

Originally published at on June 20, 2017.