Jacobs, Moses, and Me
The Village is amorphous; I can shape it into any place. . . . Everything in the Village . . . seems haphazard, accidental. When we first moved there, the old-timers told us the Village had Changed. The Village does not change, not really. The Village—the real Village, the one bounded by Fifth Avenue on the east and the Hudson River on the west—remains an accident.
“Manhattan When I Was Young”
I was a four-year reporter in 1969—almost a “veteran”—when I was one of nine Post staffers sent to the neighborhoods of their youth to write a series of articles meant to dramatize the changes wrought by time. Anthony Mancini went to the Northeast Bronx, Judith Michaelson to Flatbush, Timothy Lee to Park Slope, Jerry Tallmer to Park Avenue, Lee Dembart to Jackson Heights, John Mullane to Kingsbridge, Carl J. Pelleck to the Lower East Side, Arthur Greenspan to the Grand Concourse, and I to Greenwich Village.
For the most part, except for Park Avenue, the neighborhoods retained their working-class character. The Northeast Bronx, the Grand Concourse, and Kingsbridge, along with Jackson Heights (“the poor man’s Forest Hills”), were already on the upward-mobility route. The Northeast Bronx had not lost its rural feel, although the not-so-distant Co-op City, then in construction, was looming large. Park Avenue had already been transformed into mostly cooperative apartment houses with only twenty rental buildings left. And the Grand Concourse had not yet lost its “insular, isolated existence” primarily for Jews.
In every neighborhood, however, were signs of “city services getting bad, buildings getting shabby . . . and a tension that wasn’t there before,” as one wrote. The city had not hit the downward spiral that marked the 1970s, but its slow beginning was evident. Every neighborhood, it seemed, was in flux. Dramatic, if slow or subtle, shifts were unfolding, not the normal change of a healthy city. Moses’s massive urban renewal and highway building projects were increasingly causing disruptions that rippled throughout the city and were a primary cause of out-migration.
Too many chroniclers of the exodus from urban America are either unaware, choose to ignore, or downplay the enormous destabilization caused by the massive clearance projects that wiped out whole residential and industrial districts that would today be gentrified hot spots of renewing districts. Few acknowledge the significant impact of the push-pull effect. The riots of the mid-1960s accelerated that migration to the expanding suburbs. And the decade of the 1970s brought us to the brink of the deep abysmal fiscal crisis that marked so much of that decade.
THE STATE OF THE NEIGHBORHOODS
A few themes run through most of the reporters’ recollections. As a group, these observations reflect New York as it entered the 1970s. Many older people were still “in the neighborhood,” having been in the same residences for decades. People didn’t seem to move often. Many of their kids had left, although Jackson Heights, according to Dembart, was still considered by many “the first push to the ‘suburbs’” from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Every neighborhood was experiencing a changing ethnic makeup, often making longtime residents nervous. Some noted that each group “stayed to themselves” and didn’t “bother with one another.” Others were quick to blame creeping downward trends on “them.” The “them” varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. Often, the new arrivals were the displaced of the latest “clearance” project elsewhere in the city. Many of those interviewed said the problems were being caused by their own kids, not as well behaved as they used to be.
The ethnic mix of each of these neighborhoods was still predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish, in differing proportions. Puerto Ricans, South Americans, Asians, and blacks were adding to the mix in different areas, but the minority numbers were still marginal in contrast to today. On Park Avenue, middle-class West Siders, mostly Jews, were moving over. In the Slope, Timothy Lee reported, “the new people” were the “transplanted Manhattanites who have bought a few score of the attractive brick and brownstone houses over the past 10 years.” This was the only mention in any of the stories of the beginning of the great transformative trend that would bring middle-class residents back to so many historic neighborhoods in New York and across the country. Sometimes called “the Brownstone Movement,” “the Back-to-the-City Movement,” or just “urban pioneers,” this early trickle of new, mostly young city investors was the vanguard of what is today one of the clearly recognized trends of urban regeneration. And like most movements of positive change, this one started slowly at a small scale at the grassroots level and was totally unrecognized or underestimated by the Experts.
Gangs had been a factor in almost everyone’s childhood, but as Timothy Lee noted about the “predominantly Irish and Italian working class” Park Slope, “For years their sons fought each other in gangs, sometimes to the death. They fought because one gang, the Tigers, was Irish, and the other, the Garfield-South Brooklyn Boys, was Italian. They stopped when pistols became more readily available during the Korean War and the fun was suddenly gone out of the fighting.”
Now, though, each neighborhood was experiencing new kinds of trouble—vandalism and crime—which the city would see dramatically increase during the 1970s. In Flatbush, Judith Michaelson observed, the street conflicts had been between “the apartment-house kids and the private-house kids.” Carl Pelleck remembered “hanging out with gangs cause it was the thing to do.” What I thought I remember as gang fights in Greenwich Village were, according to author Victor Navasky, a classmate of my sister, “culture conflicts between the Italians of the South Village and the private school kids. Fights broke out during school soccer games and sometimes they’d steal our soccer ball. When they taunted us after school, fist fights occasionally broke out.” What I witnessed in Washington Square Park was never worse than rough bullying and weapons never more dangerous than sticks. The degree of minimum violence and fear didn’t compare to the 1970s.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRIME
In all of the neighborhoods, crime had been petty, but by the dawn of the 1970s, in many areas, things were getting rough. The rise in drug abuse was a common complaint, first experienced, Tim Lee noted, during the Korean War. At first, many of the drugged kids were the children of heavy-drinking parents, he added, but, increasingly, new groups were bringing drugs into several of the neighborhoods.
Almost everyone’s neighborhood had a busy retail shopping street. John Mullane said of West 231st Street in Kingsbridge: “It was impossible to go more than five steps without meeting another acquaintance.” For Kingsbridge, 231st Street was still its “Times Square,” and even the RKO Marble Hill was still operating. This onetime common community experience, where the faces of shopkeepers were familiar and cops still walked the beat and were on a first-name basis with kids, seemed to be diminishing everywhere.
Streets had been playgrounds for many of us. “Stickball was the big game,” Carl Pelleck noted about the Lower East Side. “You asked a driver to please not park on the base, to drive to the other end of the block to keep the field clear. Most complied.” And in Kingsbridge, John Mullane noted, “the curb was reserved exclusively for bouncing pink Spaldeens off it.” No more. Stickball and curb ball were now clearly a thing of the past. Complaints now were of too many cars, either double-parked on the street or racing through the community “like the Indianapolis Speed-way,” as one Bronx resident complained to Anthony Mancini.
On the Grand Concourse, Arthur Greenspan found, displeasure was expressed about what traffic engineers had done to the residents’ beloved boulevard. “They’ve widened the street, ripped out half the trees, built dividing traffic islands of green concrete instead of grass, built yellow-pavement entrances and exits—all the better to use the Concourse to flee elsewhere,” Greenspan wrote.
Only one return visitor, Jerry Tallmer, found his neighborhood quite improved: Park Avenue and Eighty-second Street, “the only homogeneous area in the city, with no weak spots, 86th St. down to 60th, between Fifth and Lexington . . . with the swinging scene” concentrated on First, Second, and Third Avenues. And only one returnee, Carl Pelleck, found his neighborhood, the Lower East Side, filled with dramatic poverty, “filth, high crime and total change” . . . but “never considered a fashionable place to live” in the first place.
The following is what I found when I went back to the Village.
“The Old Neighborhood: Greenwich Village”
Post Daily Magazine, December 26, 1969
My apartment house is long gone, replaced by a grotesque monument otherwise known as the NYU Library. Washington Square Park is in a state of bulldozed shambles, a renovation promising some grand, improved design of the park that none of us thought needed improvement. Nathan’s is coming to 8th St., Blimpie’s is already on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker, and Rienzi’s—the once famed coffee house—is now a boutique.
If there is anything remaining of the Greenwich Village in which I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, it is elusive. Many of the brownstone-lined streets remain, their West Village quality intact, but the box-like shadow of intruding apartment houses is never far off the horizon.
Gone is the spirit of the small community, separate and distinct from the rest of New York and the nation. Gone is the feeling that whatever was off-beat in the Village—the people, the dress, the symbols, the issues—was at least its own and not imported.
Gone too is the predominance of small shop-owners—more craftsmen than businessmen—who once thrived in the low-rent store fronts or cold-water lofts.
It is difficult to assess change in Greenwich Village. On the most personal level, nothing is the same. Yet in a larger sense there is still something special about the Village. It is still a geographic area unique to this city in architectural diversity, with a personality all its own. It is still the hub of newness—new movements, new dress, new life styles—even if all these are immediately commercialized. And it is still politically avant-garde, the first to take politics out of the hands of the professionals, the leader in zoning fights and landmark preservation.
What I wrote forty years go almost sounds current. The laments of many Villagers today are very similar, although a lot of specifics are quite different. I also noted that “bit by bit NYU was taking over prime Village real estate to create a campus for itself.”
It was an ideal location for a child. The park was my backyard, and there were few park regulars we didn’t know. Except for the university students, park people were Villagers and their friends. Strangers were immediately recognizable. Crowds were unusual even on warm weekends, and tourists were few and obviously out of place. Folksingers, artists with their easels, the chess players were always there, but they were just a part of the scene. No one interfered with anyone else. Buses still trafficked through Washington Arch to turn around and start back up Fifth Avenue, but that never stopped the ball games, roller skating, or the biggest sport of all—seeing who could throw the ball to the top of the Arch. Our mothers let us play in the park, unwatched, confident that should a fall or fight occur, some grown-up would take care of it. There was little mischief you could get away with without your parents hearing about it.
Today, forty years later, all of the streets I walked are much improved. The strip clubs are gone from West Third, and the celebrated Blue Note survives. The variety along MacDougal is similar but of a higher quality, a mark of definite economic upgrade but not necessarily lifestyle change. It is truly a mixed bag, with a tattoo parlor here and there.
For after school, the then still uncommercialized coffeehouses—where the espresso was brewed by the elderly Italian proprietor—were the equivalent to everyone else’s corner drugstore soda fountain. There were the Italian hero shops, bakeries, vegetable stands, pushcarts with flavored ices. “Some of the South Villagers were pushed out by newcomers, others departed seeking upward mobility,” I noted in the article. “Today the Italian enclave is still very much in existence but it is also smaller.”
LITTLE ITALY TODAY
The South Village and Little Italy used to be one and the same. Today, Little Italy survives commercially only and covers a smaller area. Most of the resident Italians have moved on, but many of the well-known restaurants and specialty shops remain, some owned and operated by Armenians. The Italian feel is less but endures nonetheless because of the businesses that remain.
The area, like so many others, is undergoing development pressure, and community efforts have been aggressive to have it designated a historic district. Deservedly so, at that. One can assume this sizable area south of the park, with its colorful assortment of cafés and shops, was omitted from the original landmark district designation because in the mid-1960s, working-class districts of tenements and assorted businesses were not considered high architecture worthy of designation. Instead, they were targets of slum clearance. The South Village was more than just the cradle of Italian immigration. It was the epicenter of the beats from the 1920s on and the folk communities of the 1950s and ’60s so long identified with the Village.
But in my 1969 article, I focused on the changing assortment of businesses that changed everything as rents escalated: “Most obviously hurt were the small entrepreneurs—the ones who slapped together jewelry, crafted hand-sewn shoes and bags, or created other ‘Villagey’ merchandise. Then, too, success led some of these craftsmen to the less personal but more lucrative world of Uptown. The small stores were the heart of the Village’s life style, one of the things that kept it a community within a city. Their demise has only accelerated the destruction of the neighborhood’s character.”
On Eighth Street, everything new was offensive: open-front hot-dog stands that were a cheap reflection of Times Square, chainlike clothing stores offering the newest in ugliness and claiming their styles were of the Village. And one stretch of small stores was enclosed in a most incongruous imitation of a colonial-style suburban shopping center, with the pointed roof, redbrick front, white columns. If the new stores throughout the area weren’t part of citywide chains, I noted, they looked like they might as well be. This intrusion was perhaps the most distasteful. Whatever used to be in the Village—good or bad—was at least its own.
Another diminishing characteristic of the Village, the article noted, was its rich source of used and rare bookshops. Only a few remained. One bookseller in business since the 1920s observed: “One old brownstone was better for me than a 20-story apartment house. The brownstones had libraries, room for books. Sure, apartment dwellers read, but they have no space. All they want is paperbacks.” The concentration of used book-stores that still existed was in the East Village, dominated by the phenomenal Strand Book Store. Renovated in 2007, it remains one of the great stores of that kind in the country.
Then the article spotlighted some of the Village battles, noting the defeat of William Zeckendorf from completely transforming the Village into another Upper East Side. New high-rises were erasing the architectural and economic diversity.
While I was still living there I saw the high-income No. 2 Fifth Avenue replace the “Henry James” houses on Washington Square North. The Strunsky houses on Washington Square South in which, for many years, many artists lived were bulldozed to make way for the imitation Federal-style NYU Law School.
I had made only a quick and meager mention of the Moses defeats, mentioned with the same interest as the demise of Carmine DeSapio as a reigning political power. The Village always seemed to have multiple battles going on at the same time. The combative nature of its citizens was famous. But to me, those battles were just that, a series of citizen battles, and the role of neither Moses nor Jacobs had yet made much of an impression on me. In retrospect, this amazes me.
By the 1950s, I noted in my article, the Village had started to join the rest of New York, and penetration by new groups and outsiders seemed to change it. The beats took over MacDougal, and Washington Square changed from a community to a metropolitan park. The Village still was a place with character, but it seemed to be fighting a rearguard action.
AS MUCH AS THINGS CHANGE . . .
Greenwich Village will probably always be “the Village.” Change inevitably brings differences from one era to another. But the essential character endures, reflected in the coffeehouses, artist studios, jazz clubs, railroad flats, walk-up apartments, esoteric bookshops, and artisan-based businesses.
In 1969, the changes I observed seemed a dramatic contrast to the Village of the 1940s and 1950s. In truth, they were. The 1960s were years of great ferment throughout the country. Here, national dramas always played out in the extreme. But more apparent today, somewhat in contrast to my 1969 observations, is how well this historic enclave absorbs those great social and economic shifts while retaining its essence.
The historical distinctions endure within this neighborhood of contrasts within a city of contrasts. More than most neighborhoods, the Village is difficult to categorize. Block by block, the neighborhood changes. Some broad distinctions are discernible. The elegant and luxurious Greek Revival and Federal townhouses of the northern streets remain among the city’s most fashionable addresses. The venerable wide assortment of houses and tree-shaded streets of the West Village retain the quiet residential air of the era of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, e. e. cummings, and John Reed, despite the scattered presence of brassy, commercial tourist spots.
The Lion’s Head on Sheridan Square, where journalists from the onetime diversified daily press gathered, disappeared as the selection of newspapers dwindled. But the White Horse Tavern, once the meeting place of Dylan Thomas, Norman Mailer, Michael Harrington, Jane Jacobs, and William Styron, survives on Hudson Street. The southern portion of the Village is still where the humbler assortment of tenements mixes in with townhouses and storefronts. Here, where the remnants of Little Italy survive, urban renewal did the most damage. And the enduring rakish and radical character of the East Village, birthplace of the flower-child generation and theatrical innovations like La Mama, is reflected in outlandish and colorful hair and dress styles, New Wave eateries, and entertainment uses.
For post-World War II America, the Village was the cradle of free-spirited, bohemian culture in the city and country. Abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the beats, radical politics, sexual freedom, folk-song artists—all manner of countercultures and cutting-edge movements—were born or nurtured there. Greenwich Village once seemed so separate from the rest of the city. Today, it is more integrated and not so far out of the mainstream. The center of the cultural avant-garde shifted long ago and now migrates every few years to the next yet-to-be upscaled city neighborhood, usually with the artists in the vanguard.
STILL A WORLD APART
For many who live there, however, the Village is still a world apart from the rest of the city. And for some, it has the hometown feel they left behind to come to New York years ago. Kansas City-born author Calvin Trillin moved in 1968 with his wife, Alice, to a Federal row house when, he recalls, local stores put pictures of neighbors on their walls and when both rich and poor attended the public school, as did their daughters. Trillin wrote in a New Yorker article in June 1982: “I have always believed that my attachment to the Village has to do with what it shares with the Midwest, rather than with what Midwesterners would consider arty or bohemian. Compared to uptown Manhattan, it has always seemed less formal, more neighborly, less densely populated, built closer to human scale, and less dominated by the sort of building that requires walking past a doorman and into an elevator in order to go home—an act that Midwesterners tend to find considerably more unnatural than a drunken poetry-reading in the park.” Twenty-eight years later, Trillin says that the fundamental atmosphere is the same. “A lot has been fixed up,” he says. “The stores are better and there are more and better restaurants, more places than I can eat at. I never on purpose go to a restaurant I can’t walk to.”
Even for me, having moved away so long ago, some places feel very familiar, even if considerably changed. The walk I took to school, primarily down MacDougal, has improved since my 1969 look back. But the lackluster assortment of gift shops and restaurants doesn’t seem to have much character or appeal. Maybe it never really did.
The school I walked down MacDougal to get to, the Little Red Schoolhouse, remains an educational stronghold in the city and is totally recognizable in its original Bleecker Street location. This simple four-story redbrick schoolhouse has been comfortably expanded into a sensitively restored Federal row house next door. And the school added space in a modest, contemporary way next door to that on Sixth Avenue. The playground we used around the corner at Sixth Avenue and Houston survives due to its ownership by the New York City Parks Department.
Today, this vibrant district remains a great magnet for the unconventional; it is, however, no longer the only one to do so because so much of the city has improved in recent decades, so that now no one area of the city is the favorite locale of the avant-garde, the artist, the off-beat lifestyle. In fact, what is unconventional is not easy to determine these days. Decades ago, a reasonable assumption could be that people dressed in all black were from the Village. Today that black-clad person could just as likely be an internationally known establishment architect from midtown or an uptown restaurateur.
The Village is still the great gathering place it has been historically. The variety of personalities is endless. Weekend users pour in from around the city and out of town, a long-standing phenomenon. In Washington Square Park, until the recent controversial redesign, a varied crowd still hung out around the huge circular water fountain that many people call “the fountain” or “the Circle.” The Circle was our summer wading pool. In great numbers on Sundays, folksingers gathered playing guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and handcrafted improvised instruments. They sang all the familiar songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the unknowns. Many became famous, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but those days are a distant memory. Diverse crowds assemble there now. Groups cluster. But the music is gone. Now it is just one of the city’s many magnetic gathering places.
LANDMARK PROTECTION WORKS
The historic grittiness of Greenwich Village remains stable in large part because the complex urban fabric does, still fostering a diversity of uses and people. One hundred square odd-shaped blocks on a crazy quilt of meandering streets, Greenwich Village retains varied elements of historic layers that began with Dutch farmers in the 1700s. Affluent, upwardly mobile downtown merchants and bankers came in the 1800s. Downtowners fleeing cholera and yellow-fever epidemics migrated in the 1900s. In parallel time periods, the rough-and-tumble port activity along the Hudson waterfront spilled out onto Village streets.
Postwar buildings built before the 1965 landmarks law often do not relate well to the Village context. But since designation as a historic district, all alterations to existing structures and designs for new buildings must be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. This sustains the Village’s unique urban fabric and fundamentally protects its architectural heritage. Absorption of change is, for the most part, deliberative, incremental, and manageable, but change—including many new buildings—there definitely is.
Physical and economic change has not stopped, but cataclysmic change has. In fact, incrementalism is exhibited there in its most effective form with storefront upgrades, historic restorations, conversions of commercial buildings to residential, many modest rooftop and rear yard additions, and new buildings fitting into scattered available sites. Equally significant, the Village remains a hotbed of community activism, easily stirred into forceful action as threats arise from private developers, public officials, or large-scale institutions like St. Vincent’s Hospital or NYU. Civic protest movements have been recurrent in the Village for generations. They mounted as the garrets and saloons of bohemia fell under the wrecker’s ball, as apartment houses replaced some of the Greek Revival homes of the nineteenth-century wealthy, and as New York University increased its holdings to more than 80 percent of all the real estate on Washington Square.
It was in Greenwich Village that Jane Jacobs and others ignited nationwide resistance to authoritarian planning policies so forcefully shaped by Robert Moses. The legacy of that civic watchfulness endures. From the 1959 closing of Washington Square Park to vehicular traffic and the more recent unsuccessful fight to save the Edgar Allan Poe House on West Third Street from demolition by NYU to an unsuccessful fight to stop St. Vincent’s Hospital from a total disregard for the landmarks law and efforts to prevent the controversial transformation of Washington Square Park, the tradition of the engaged and vigilant community shows little sign of abating. Periodic public fights continue to provide the glue that keeps the spirit of community intact.
The commons of the Village, the 8.6-acre (eight square blocks) Washington Square Park, once again, has many young children in its one big playground, a reflection of the increase since the 1970s of young families in the neighborhood. Plenty of old people can be found sitting on park benches, too. Villagers don’t move away easily. My grandfather and his friends had a favorite bench. I would run to say hello to him after school each day. I see the elderly on that bench today. And just as was true during my childhood, NYU students use the park well. They guarantee a youthful feel to the park population.
Before even the newest redesign, the drug pushers were considerably diminished in number since the 1970s. One fools oneself to think they are not there at all. Their numbers had increased in the 1980s when Union Square Park at Fourteenth Street was “cleaned up” and relandscaped, following its newfound popularity with the success of the city’s first great Greenmarket.1 When the drug pushers were pushed out of Fourteenth Street, they just moved south to Washington Square. The law-abiding users of both parks are so plentiful that whatever criminal element exists does not feel threatening. Density and diversity of users, like on a street, are the best enforcement tools.
Probably my favorite park feature remains: the chess players. In the southwest corner of the park are eighteen concrete chess tables, a tradition dating back to 1932 under Mayor La Guardia. Clusters of onlookers can always be found watching their favorite game. This is a fascinating group to watch.
The park has been something of a lightning rod for Village protests—“eight acres of sociology,” Gay Talese once called it. The 1970s redesign stirred considerable debate but reflected genuine community involvement. 2 The controversy surrounding the current $16 million redesign, unveiled in 2004, reflects both the increased dominance of NYU and a “high-design” mind-set coming from the Parks Department.
The quintessential gathering place, Washington Square Park’s appeal was always its casual informality. A true neighborhood park, it was never meant to be a showpiece. Comfortable, safe, user-friendly, offering something for all, this park just happens to work. With its assortment of spaces, all manner of spontaneous activity took place here over the years, from roller skating in my youth to Rollerblading now, from pavement chalk games like hopscotch to impromptu guitar-playing songfests. The studying student, chatting neighbors, playing toddlers, dog-walking residents, and drug-pushing intruders all have claimed their space. I remember as a child being aware of the area where drunks hung out. It was to be avoided.
Showing wear and tear in recent years, this park needed some repair and renovation. But when the city unveiled its in-house design for a more formal, somewhat sanitized, and extremely groomed “greener” park, the community uproar was to be expected. Villagers understandably assumed the design was done with NYU’s needs in mind (the school is contributing $1 million to the work but claims to have had no input), especially the change in stage design and ground leveling that make the graduation ceremony more comfortable but is officially to make it handicap accessible. (Wheelchairs, however, have been all over this park for years.)
The loudly opposed initial provision for a fence and gates was withdrawn early on. But the equally controversial moving of the 1856 circular fountain remained. Here was a perfect case of an apparent legitimate need for repair of the pipes and underground infrastructure forming the ludicrous rationale for moving the fountain to make the plaza around it symmetrical and aligning the fountain with the Stanford White Arch to gain the view directly up Fifth Avenue! Symmetrical?! One could already see up Fifth Avenue. Ironically, few people even sit on the edge now during warm seasons because the vertical stream of water in the recalibrated fountain is so high, it blows over the edges that were favorite seating spaces.
Unbeknownst to anyone until a Village resident filed a Freedom of Information Act query, the Tisch family agreed to donate $2.5 million to the fountain work and, in exchange, secured the name, the Tisch Fountain. This occurred before the public review process but was not revealed until that process was over.
3.1 The circle fountain in Washington Square Park has been a favorite gathering place forever.
A nineteenth-century landscape orthodoxy is creeping into this and other park designs. The Parks Department’s plan included removal of five of the six much-loved and well-used alcove seating areas, added in the 1970 plan at community urging. Five were to be removed. Local city councilman Alan J. Gerson noted in his strong opposition to this design element: “Informal group seating, chit-chatting, debating, socializing has been an historic part of the Park. The alcoves and their predecessor corner seating areas in the park’s previous incarnation have long provided the settings for their activities.” The designer excuse for this alteration, besides the supposed advantage of creating more green space, was that seating capacity for the park was actually being increased. This is a sly numbers game. Benches elsewhere had been removed over the years, but now extra benches were to be added to the walkways. This is not about gathering places; this is just about sitting. Numbers don’t reflect use. In the end, four alcoves were retained. This park needed repair, not an overhaul.
The recent controversy over this park’s redesign reflects several issues common in many cities and other neighborhoods; it is more than just about parks. The conflict between design for design’s sake versus design to reflect use patterns, the difference between open communication and collaboration with the community and a manipulated form of community participation, the issue of unknown agendas and private interests, all these issues played out here. In fact, they will continue to play out as the phases of the park’s redesign proceed.
THE MOSES ROAD
This is the park—one of the city’s most storied—through which then parks commissioner and master road builder Robert Moses wanted to put a road. Fifth Avenue would extend through it, connecting Upper and Lower Manhattan. Until this proposal in 1956, only the Fifth Avenue buses entered the park to turn around and go back up Fifth Avenue. The avenue was two-way then, as were all streets and avenues until traffic engineers made the priority the acceleration of traffic through cities, instead of within them.
A coalition of Village groups formed in 1956 to kill this plan and, in addition, to ban all traffic from the park. Two housewives, Shirley Hayes and Edith Lyons, started this fight. Jane Jacobs joined the coalition and became its most celebrated leader in the battle against Moses. She would later lead the fight against Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway plan a few blocks south of the park. (See next chapter.) But the two battles were inextricably connected, although no one knew it at the time of the park conflict. “We found out why it was so important to put the road through Washington Square,” Jacobs recalled when we discussed the Moses era, “by seeing an artist’s rendering of it on the wall of the office of the borough president of Manhattan when we went down for something else. The road through the park was to be one of the ramps for the expressway.”3
So when the coalition not only wanted to stop the road but ban traffic completely, Moses “had a fit,” Jacobs said, because he needed it for his larger expressway plan. “So he came up with all kinds of figures about the amount of additional traffic that was going to go around the square,” she said, “if this were done and how congested the streets would be.” Undoubtedly, the idea of limiting traffic capacity instead of increasing it was nothing short of heresy in the era of enlarging automobile capacity everywhere and in every way. Jacobs said: “Moses was trying to scare people—and he did scare some who lived on the perimeter of the square. He scared them to death about how much traffic would be there. We knew that was nonsense because there wasn’t any room for it. The only way you could get increased traffic was by increasing the road space.”
The coalition was very crafty in asking for the park’s closure to traffic. They proposed that it be done on a trial basis, to see what would happen. “We knew it was perfectly safe to just ask for a trial basis,” Jacobs said. “We knew that if the test were successful, it would become permanent. This was nothing radical really, just a chance to experiment a little.” Nevertheless, Moses was adamantly opposed. “Moses and all the city traffic engineers had always opposed doing anything like this anywhere,” Jacobs said. “They told us: ‘You will be back on your knees begging us to put that roadway back because of the inundation of traffic elsewhere.’ We didn’t believe that for a minute. We just said, ‘We’ll try it. This is an experiment.’”
Not only did chaos not happen, but no predicted tie-ups occurred around the park. In fact, Jacobs noted, “there was less traffic. Actual traffic numbers declined where they had been predicted to rise.”
That “experiment” offered a significant lesson that was never learned and only in recent years has been recognized in the sporadic places around the globe where traffic is being “tamed” and measured. In 1997 a U.S. study, “Road Supply and Traffic in California Urban Areas,” determined that every 10 percent increase in road capacity was followed by a 9 percent increase in traffic volume within a five-year period.
Cases like this happen all the time with anticipated traffic catastrophes not happening. But this broad insight into traffic behavior came long after the Washington Square road fight. Back then, Jacobs said, “for the first time, people began to understand that the more provision you make for cars in the city, the more cars and more traffic there will be. You don’t solve the traffic problem by making more provision for cars, with the potential supply of cars utterly inexhaustible.”
TIDE TURNING AGAINST CARS?
At the time of my conversation with Jacobs in 1978, the proponents of expansion of highways and roads seemed, on the surface at least, to have the cards stacked in their favor, or so it seemed in the press. The idea of saying no to expanded automotive accommodation was still alien to most people. If not alien, the concept just didn’t occur to many people in the 1970s, let alone the 1950s. After more than twenty years of indoctrination in favor of cars, malls, and the suburban lifestyle, people seemed very accepting of this as the norm of the time.
Jacobs disagreed. “Not really,” she said in a comment that turned out to be prescient.
It’s running the other way. Time is on our side. There’s more doubt about these things. The fights get harder and harder, more and more widespread. Really, Roberta, if you were my age, you would remember back to 1955 and ’56. It was unheard of to fight a thing like that, and it was unheard of to talk in the kind of terms that educated people now find it perfectly natural to talk in—whether they agree or disagree about what automobiles do to cities, that they can do harm, and that you would ever stop a road without planning for compensating road space nearby. Those were the terms it was put in: which alternative do you prefer, the road through the park or widening around it? Most people at the time just couldn’t imagine any other alternative.
“And it was Edith Lyons and Shirley Hays,” Jacobs recalled, “who sat in the park with their little kids and wondered why they should be stuck with either of these options and why you had to have additional roads for traffic around Washington Square at all. And they were considered crazy women who just didn’t understand the facts of life. ‘Isn’t this just like a woman to think that way’ was the attitude.” They turned it into an enormous community victory. Prominent leaders joined them, like planner Victor Gruen, critic Lewis Mumford, housing advocate Charles Abrams, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Today, thirty years after our conversation, this understanding is almost commonplace. But another lesson that Jacobs noted has not been learned. Traffic engineers then and many now insist that traffic behaves like water. If you narrow the passage for them, bottlenecks and congestion increase. But, as Jacobs noted, that is a theory that does not hold up under scrutiny. Instead, traffic often disappears, as it did in Washington Square. “They don’t learn from observation,” Jacobs noted, “and they are not curious enough to study what actually did happen to the traffic.4Mysteriously, it disappeared, and much conjecture tries to explain it, but no one has actually studied it.”
The number of cases around the world where a similar phenomenon is observable, that is, diminished space and disappearing traffic, is increasing. This is true whether in San Francisco after the earthquake brought down the Embarcadero or in Milwaukee after an elevated portion of the downtown expressway was removed or in Seattle in 2007 with the partial closure of Interstate 5—dubbed “the Big Clog”—when dire traffic predictions proved wrong.
Clark Williams-Derry, reporting in the Seattle Times on August 30, 2007, noted that traffic remained “far better than average, despite slow-downs through the construction zone” and that people were finding alternative ways to get to work. “The main lesson from The Clog That Wasn’t,” he wrote, “is this: The conventional wisdom about traffic just isn’t right. We tend to think that Seattle commuters are tied to their cars and can’t—or won’t—use alternative modes of transportation in large numbers. But that notion was just turned on its head. As it turns out commuters are much more adaptable, flexible and wilier than we give them credit for.”
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
The one big drawback to the park, the city’s smallest, is the same as it is for the surrounding district. NYU owns or rents so much of everything around it that this historical heart of Greenwich Village is, for all intents and purposes, the NYU campus. As long ago as 1958, an article in the New York Times noted, “The park is now in effect a campus shared with tourists and mothers who sun their infants and watch youngsters roller skate on the park pavement.”5
“Overbearing” is how one park neighbor described NYU’s presence, while ambivalently acknowledging the positive contribution of the students’ youthful presence. “The crowd is not the blackstocking crowd of my youth,” she says, “but I like their esprit. NYU has made the neighborhood too campuslike, however. They even close the park for graduation.” In fact, notes another longtime resident, “NYU is the landlord of so much of the Village that you don’t see the same degree of groundswell of resistance to its continued encroachments. That is the hidden side of the neighborhood now. Too many people are beholden to NYU and thus stay silent.”
Overbearing is surely the appropriate description for what NYU has become in recent years. Once a good solid commuter school with primarily New York City students, NYU with its fourteen separate schools has now grown to be the largest private university in the country, attracting students from around the world, as much for its top rank as for its New York City locale. After twenty years of expansion and about a dozen new high-rises, NYU owns or occupies one hundred buildings between Sixth and Second Avenues and has become the defining presence. And instead of seeking to develop a secondary campus elsewhere in the city where it might be a welcome, regenerative presence, it continues to expand in place. In 2007, NYU—with forty thousand students and thirty-one hundred faculty—claimed a need for another six million square feet of space over twenty-five years.
Many residents of the Village are, of course, concerned that their historic neighborhood character will be subsumed into NYU’s overarching presence. It is not an unfounded concern. In fact, it parallels the concern of many neighborhoods around the city as educational, hospital, and other institutions take advantage of zoning privileges provided “community facilities” to physically expand in all-consuming ways. Cities across the country, from New Haven to Berkeley, wrestle with this dilemma, especially since urban colleges are a prime student choice nationally these days. Many also have wealthy donors who have been all too happy to have their name on a new building.
While the university is somewhat dispersed around the East Village, its most dominating presence is felt around the park. The Greek Revival row houses on the park’s north side were once the home of John Dos Passos, Edward Hopper, and the social elite. Their elegant, restrained redbrick fronts with white marble entryways and classic fluted columns framing the front doors are beautifully maintained and guarantee the future for one of the park’s most distinctive architectural features. Now most of these designated landmarks house NYU departments. The gracious old apartment houses on the park’s west side, where so many of my childhood friends lived, are also owned by NYU and used for faculty and student housing. Eleanor Roosevelt had her apartment on the top floor of number 29 while her husband was president. I vividly remember walking my dog at the same time she walked her Scottie, Fala. She was very friendly and often stopped to talk as our dogs sniffed each other. I was much too young to be in awe of whom I was chatting with.
ENHANCING THE STREET, OR NOT
On the east side of the park, NYU has converted all the onetime factory buildings into classrooms and other uses. This includes the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Fire building, a designated landmark. Some of the buildings have never looked better. Unfortunately, however, insufficienttransparent street-level uses exist in NYU buildings. Ground-floor windows can add or diminish interest where it matters most, on the street. Too many of the university’s ground-floor functions are hidden by painted-over or filled-in windows. What could possibly be happening behind the darkened windows that the passerby should not see? Even mechanical equipment is more interesting to look at than a painted-over window.
The scattered visible activity spaces—an attractive reception hall facing the park, a study area, a cafeteria—subtly add to the pedestrian experience. They are too few in number. In the suburbs, this would not be noticeable, nor would it matter, since everyone drives by in a car. But in a city, what happens on the ground floor of every building adds to or subtracts from street life. Relating better to the street is vital to NYU and the city.
Street-level windows are probably the most underappreciated, smallest, and least-considered element of urban life. Yet they are the perfect vehicle to reflect local activity, character, and history.
NYU is not alone in missing the opportunity of street-level spaces. New York street life is being nibbled to death all over town, one store window and one ground-floor space at a time. The federal office building near City Hall has solid green glass. The expanded Museum of Modern Art has turned most of Fifty-fourth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues into a solid wall of contemporary, metallic material, deadening the street. Even a few small windowlike openings—originally promised—could make a pedestrian connect to the museum space. This is a prime walking district. Banks, drugstore chains, and assorted uses have dulled the window-gazing experience on many streets.
Ironically, in contrast, one of the best examples of a street-enhancing window use is an NYU one, a few blocks north of Washington Square Park at the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street. “Broadway Windows,” a program of the NYU School of Fine Arts, contains rotating exhibits of truly fine student work on the ground floor of a 1920s apartment house. It always grabs my attention. Imagine if windows around the district served as a showcase for student and neighborhood creativity.
The most suburban feature NYU has added in recent years is a truly unfortunate one—the campus circulating bus. Understandably, many campus universities around the country today have a circulating bus system. On a spread-out, self-contained nonurban campus, this may make sense. But the NYU campus is the city itself. NYU is concentrated in one of the city’s most walkable—and bikable!—districts, well served by mass transit. Almost every subway line runs into it. This may not be what out-of-town or suburban students are used to. But the advantages of being here should be demonstrated, not circumvented. As an NYU student, I lived on the Upper West Side and commuted to class by subway and by foot, as did and do thousands of city students. Instinctively, some people say, “Students need a quick way to get from one class to the next when distance is a problem.” Well, it is doubtful that the bus is where every student needs it to be at the appointive time and going lickety-split, nonstop, to that student’s next class. In fact, most of the time that I observe this circulating bus, it has only a few passengers. Walking is probably more direct and faster, biking even better.
THE POE HOUSE CONTROVERSY
One of the big Village controversies in recent years was NYU’s destruction in 2000 of the 1835 redbrick house in which Edgar Allan Poe lived when he published his poem “The Raven.” The unadorned Poe House was located on the West Third block between Sullivan and Thompson Streets. On the west end was Judson House, originally three separate Greek Revival houses that were merged and redesigned in the 1890s by McKim, Mead, and White. Judson House backed up to the landmark Judson Church facing the park, also designed by McKim, Mead, and White, one of the country’s most important historic architectural firms.
This unassuming stretch of four- to six-story mustard and redbrick buildings was a quintessential urban block, representing varied building types, styles, and periods built over time. Such physical variety, when not totally occupied by one user, invites assorted economic uses on which a diverse city economy depends. The loss of this undesignated but landmark-worthy block was yet another clear diminishment of the Village’s historic character. The four-story law school replacement is at best an ordinary design with an unmistakable institutional look.
A very public fight arose around NYU’s planned demolition of the Poe House. NYU rationalized that it had been heavily altered over time, something that can be said of many restorable landmarks. Yet it still reflected what Henry James described as the “established repose” of the once fashionable Federal and Greek Revival row houses built when the area was first developed in the 1830s. NYU argued that the loss was necessary for its survival. Many institutions make the same argument when, instead, they could be creatively weaving such landmarks into their institutional future, as well as the city’s.
In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times on July 27, 2000, E. L. Doctorow, who teaches English literature at NYU, wrote, “NYU has consistently recognized and celebrated its connection to the historic literary culture of Greenwich Village. How uncharacteristic of this great university that it now wants to raze this . . . small house that is very suggestive of the writer’s perpetually straitened circumstances. I wonder why plans can’t be drawn to build the school around, above and behind it. This sort of thing has been done elsewhere when architects have been faced with a historic but inconvenient structure.” Also in a letter to the editor, Woody Allen noted that “surely it can be worked out in a way that does not destroy yet another piece of this fast-vanishing area.”
The judge who ruled in the university’s favor in a lawsuit brought to stop the Poe House demolition nevertheless took the university to task, noting, “As a leading academic institution where Poe’s cadences are still heard . . . NYU would seem to be the natural guardian of the Poe House. . . . From a historical, cultural and literary point of view, Poe House should stand.”
Subsequently, in negotiations with community and preservation groups, the university agreed to reconstruct the facade of the house as it appeared in the nineteenth century, using salvaged original bricks, lintels, cornices, and other materials. Even this concession was not fulfilled. “There were not enough usable bricks,” a spokesman claimed in all seriousness. Instead, a silly rendition in new brick of the historic building was incorporated into the ground floor of the new block-long building, a few doors away from the historic site. This fake is not even worthy of Colonial Williamsburg.
Judson Memorial Church is all that remains of the south side of Washington Square Park. Philip Johnson’s hulking red-sandstone Bobst Library built by NYU in 1960 flanks the east end; the mock-colonial law school flanks the west end. In between is NYU’s thirteen-story Kimmel Center, built in 2003. Ironically, NYU promotional material still offers the opportunity to live in “Greenwich Village, one of NYC’s most creative and energetic communities and a historic mecca for generations of world renowned artists, writers and scholars.”
In NYU’s favor, it must be said, is its overall respect for the urbanism and the street grid of its locale. NYU and Greenwich Village are woven into each other around the university buildings. This, of course, is ensured because of the Historic District designation regulated by the Landmarks Commission. And even though it has effectively transformed the community in which it resides, NYU never tried to change the street patterns to make it feel like a private enclave. A visitor does not know the extent of NYU’s dominance. One feels comfortable coming into it or passing through. The same cannot be said for Columbia University’s planned expanded campus, as will be further explored later in this book.
THE WEST VILLAGE
While NYU clearly dominates the east side of Greenwich Village, it has had no visible impact on the West Village. Cross Sixth Avenue and you feel transplanted back into the historical Village of small stores, one-of-a-kind boutiques, walk-up apartments, restaurants, cafés, and unpredictable happenings. The West Village, with its textbook array of historic architecture, misses the aesthetic unity of scores of the city’s historic residential and industrial districts. It does, however, have a different sort of unity. Here, the art of architecture is found in the treasured old, not the fashionable new. Housing costs have skyrocketed, but the resident population remains diverse in all ways. The content of the diversity is not the same—no longshoremen, more blacks—but varied nonetheless.
“The West Village has done very well,” Jane observed on a visit in 2004. “If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would not be as much trouble in many cities. There are too few neighborhoods as successful right now so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money, which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood outstrips the supply by far.”
One of the most interesting sites is right on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Third Street. Until 1927 Sixth Avenue ran from Central Park West to a short distance north of here at Carmine Street. In that year, the city blasted away tenements to continue Sixth Avenue south. A few little wedge-shaped pieces of empty space remained, such as a small asphalt lot enclosed by a chain-link fence with several handball and basketball courts that daily host some of the most serious competitions in the city. Not just anyone gets to play there, and sport scouts reportedly come by looking for talent. This is one of those serendipitous urban activities that spring up where space just allows it to happen—never organized, never formalized, but eventually institutionalized in its own urban way. A busy subway entrance sits on this corner. I pass there frequently, but I never go by that a large crowd is not gathered to watch.
Throughout the West Village, small change continues to unfold but sometimes with large impacts. The stretch of Bleecker Street west of Seventh Avenue, during the recent economic boom, was transformed into chic and upscale retail. It has long been fashionable, but somehow the presence of national retailers seems to many people to be more dramatic. But nothing has been torn down to make this happen, and the talked-about transformation may be more of a perception than a reality. The large retail chains can’t dominate. Landmarks and zoning limits deny demolition of walls between buildings for expansion of the ground floor to create the huge spaces that supersize national chains require. Most important, when each phase passes, as it inevitably does, the historic fabric will house the next wave of retail chic that is always looking for modest, affordable street-level space. Natural urban shifts unfold this way.
For the most part, small businesses—particularly family-owned ones—do well there because the tiny store sizes work well for them and because Village residents are especially appreciative of the convenience of having them and can be very loyal customers.
Bleecker Street has long been the most interesting and probably best-known commercial street, but Eighth Street, from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, was the location for more of life’s essentials when I was growing up: the grocery store, pharmacy, delicatessen, butcher, and my father’s dry-cleaning store. Comfortably mixed in was a second-generation family-owned jeweler, a leather crafter of citywide renown, a jewelry designer, and an art store. Eighth Street was a center as well of Village artistic and intellectual life. The Washington Square Book Shop was a literary beacon. The Eighth Street Playhouse staged cutting-edge plays and later became an art-film house. The Whitney Museum was founded on this street in 1931 and stayed until it moved uptown in 1948. The Studio School with Hans Hoffmann at the helm was also an important art center. Many artists lived above the stores along Eighth Street or nearby. The street was the epicenter for the New York School of artists in the 1950s.
By the 1960s, drugs and fast-paced tourism took their toll. By the 1970s, most of the individually owned stores and cultural sites had closed, and the local character was completely gone. Eighth Street continued to get worse. Cheap shoe stores, head shops, and low-end clothing invaded like locusts and endured right up to the turn of the new century. The Eighth Street Playhouse, its facade gone, is now a cheap dollar store.
A few good things have occurred, however, and indications point to a slow but sure turnaround, especially with new restaurants opening. Barnes & Noble replaced Nathan’s fast-food hot-dog chain. A few years ago, a merchant group organized a business improvement district. Store upgrades are concentrated on the east side of Fifth Avenue. But west of Fifth, the sidewalk is widened, traffic is calmed, new historic-style lampposts are installed, and various events promote the positive qualities of the street. The balance between pedestrian and car is better, and people feel less pushed aside. A Belgian sandwich shop with fresh baguettes, pastries, and coffee opened on the west corner of Fifth Avenue, the first new sign that upgrading is moving westward. An upscale restaurant opened next door to my father’s former store. Other new and better uses are sure to follow. Ironically, the current economic collapse has shuttered many more of the cheap shoe stores, leaving several vacancies. What will replace them when the economy turns around will be interesting to see.
For me, the Village has mostly been defined by the geography of my own experience growing up there and then attending NYU. And while Washington Square Park is central to all of it and NYU is the overarching presence, the Village is really an assortment of very distinct enclaves with a history and character different from each other.
As Jane Jacobs observed about Greenwich Village years ago in conversation, “It is not small. In fact, it is a pretty big district. Parts were always considered better than others and all different. The South Village was heavily Italian and before that I guess mainly Irish. That area was considered bad. Sullivan Street is considered very chic now, but I remember when it was just teeming with poor children and tenements, so I suppose it was considered bad.”
Jacobs had moved to the Village with her sister in 1934, selecting it because “she found so many people walking in such a purposeful way and so many interesting stores and activities to observe.” This iconic neighborhood became the incubator for her ideas. It was a study area, a laboratory. She observed the different elements that added up to vibrancy in city life. She recognized the same characteristics in other vibrant neighborhoods, large and small, and assembled them into a web of related precepts. “Of course, the West Village where I lived was considered bad,” Jacobs said. “We didn’t know it when we moved here, fortunately, but it had been designated a slum to be cleared first way back in the 1930s when Rexford Tugwell, who would become one of Roosevelt’s ‘brain trusters,’ was chairman of the Planning Commission.” But one official’s slum can be someone’s definition of a good neighborhood to live in. And the Village has always drawn a place-proud population.
WEST VILLAGE HOUSES: KNOWN AS THE JANE JACOBS HOUSES
Parallel to the Hudson along the West Side Highway and a few blocks inland are the West Village Houses built in the mid-1970s. This complex could serve as a national model of everything that was wrong in postwar development policies and everything that is right when community sensibilities prevail. A community fight there defeated the Robert Moses Urban Renewal Plan—apparently, the first defeat nationwide of an urban renewal plan—that would have wiped out the entire fourteen square blocks of historic urban fabric filled with owner-occupied, well-maintained one-and two-family houses, tenements, and individual buildings. All had been restored with private money. But it was designated a “slum,” a necessary official step to qualify for urban renewal money. Residents and businesses in the area knew it wasn’t a slum. They thought well enough of the area, in fact, even with its service and physical limitations, to remain there, open businesses, and invest money. “The people in the Village had watched urban renewal around the city with its waste and profiteering vandalism,” Jacobs recalled.
So much land was being taken, and so much was being lost. The West Village people understood the negative impact all these plans were having on the city.
The sin of the Village was that it had all these mixed uses. All the manufacturing buildings were to be demolished and replaced with high-rises. There would be a little enclave left of all the most expensive and aesthetically appealing houses. The rest would go. Now all those former manufacturing buildings are turned into the most expensive lofts in the city. These people, even the real estate experts, they didn’t know from nothing. They were so ignorant, not just about what they were destroying but what people would like.
The term slum is very subjective, differing according to who is using it. Poor conditions in an area may be due more to a lack of municipal services than anything else, as we will see throughout this book. A few buildings may be in need of repair or even in danger of imminent collapse. Some may be fire hazards, or abandoned and run-down. None of these individual conditions should qualify an entire area as a slum, especially when renovation and new infill options have not been explored. More than anything else, the terms slum or blight reflect the motivation of the people using them.6 All of this was clear in the fight against the West Village Urban Renewal Plan.
A survey of the area, for example, revealed the presence of 1,765 residents, including 710 families, plus warehouses, truck depots, and mom-and-pop businesses. More than 80 businesses employed hundreds of people. In fact, this designation of “slum” was not too different from the designation applied to many other city neighborhoods declared “blighted” and cleared by Moses in the name of slum clearance. “We took Lester Eisner, regional administrator for the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency, on a tour so he would learn what the community was really made of,” recalled Jacobs, who led the resistance.7 “It convinced him this was not a slum. He was floored, couldn’t believe the great range of incomes. He said it was wonderful. But this is the secret he told us: Never tell anyone what you would like. As soon as you do, you will be judged a participating citizen. You’re hooked, trapped. They can ignore you. Eisner alerted us to this. People in New York never knew why we were only so negative. Wagner eventually decided the urban slum designation had to be lifted.”
One of the brilliant things about Jane but little acknowledged was that she believed in and followed smart tactics that she often learned from observing others. She came across as very confrontational and anticompromise, all of which had a purpose. But in this anecdote she reveals that the lesson learned from Eisner was to resist saying what you want until what you don’t want is defeated. Jacobs also believed that it was vital to cultivate your own constituency instead of trying to persuade opponents.
3.2 The Little Red Schoolhouse on Bleecker Street with the expansion into the smaller brick building next door. My elementary school and still a great one.
After the defeat of the Moses Urban Renewal Plan, the successful citizens group the West Village Committee, led by Jacobs, hired its own architect and promulgated its own plan and design for new housing. A basic, modest-scale apartment-house configuration was designed to flexibly fill in the district’s vacant lots, avoiding any demolition or displacement. “Not a single person—not a single sparrow—shall be displaced” was their slogan. The result is an assortment of plain redbrick five- and six-story walk-up apartment houses of different shapes and sizes and three different layouts with an occasional corner store on the ground floor.8
The planning establishment hated this proposal because it was initiated by the community and left intact the organically evolved mixture of residential and commercial uses. “We hired Perkins and Will, not a New York City firm, so they wouldn’t be blackballed for working with us as all city architects feared,” Jacobs explained. “The West Village Committee was totally self-organized. Anything self-organized is inimical to planners who want control. The city was furious. We had an informant in the Planning Office who told us what was said: ‘If we let this neighborhood plan for itself, all will want to do it too.’ Planners always pick control over spontaneity. If one believes things can happen spontaneously and work well, it diminishes the importance of planners.”
City officials, especially then housing and development administrator Roger Starr, did everything possible to strip the design of appealing amenities. He succeeded, nibbling away at the design in every little way possible. It was twelve years of delays. Costs escalated. The result is bare-bones architecture. Yet a waiting list of potential renters existed from the day it opened. Architecture critic Michael Sorkin has written, “West Village Houses fits unobtrusively within the intimate weave of its surroundings. It’s a model piece of urbanism because of this careful integration; because its architectural expression is not treated as a big, determining deal; and because it grew out of the self-organizing impetus to provide new and better housing for people of modest means for whom the market had little empathy.”
The West Village Houses are probably the country’s first and most significant example of genuine infill housing design. Today, the “infill” description is inappropriately applied to whole blocks of new developments on cleared land inserted into existing neighborhoods, often like an alien species introduced among the natives. Genuine infill is inserted in spaces within a block, not in substitution for a block. However, neither the West Village Houses’ infill value nor other innovations were ever spotlighted by critics, professionals, or professors for the lessons they illustrated. Thus, most people are unaware that it was probably the first successful community-designed challenge to the conventional planning and development policies of the day.9
West Village Houses started as a moderate-income Mitchell-Lama rental under a program conceived in the 1950s as a solution to a shortage of low- and middle-income apartments. Named after State Senator Mac-Neil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama, the 1955 law offered owners and landlords tax breaks and favorable loan terms in return for keeping rents within the range of low- and middle-income tenants. It also permitted owners to “buy out” of the program by paying off the mortgage and other debts after twenty to forty years, depending on the date and type of project. Once the developments exit the program, they can either go to market rate or go under rent stabilization, unless successfully challenged by owners.
In 2007, the tenants of West Village Houses successfully organized to buy the buildings from the landlord who was planning to opt out of the program. After four years of negotiation with the landlord, the deal struck by the tenants to convert to a cooperative and rental mix guaranteed no evictions for tenants, a twelve-year period of rent restraints (rent stabilized), the right of tenants to buy their apartments at an insider price, the right of the new owner to sell the 10 vacant units out of the total 420 at market rate, and a guarantee new buyers would meet the federal middle-income standard. Other sensible terms were provided, but suffice it to say that this represents a reasonable compromise that affords the owner a fair profit without losing the larger city value as a middle-income enclave.
In recent years, the city has been losing too many Mitchell-Lama middle-income apartments. From 1990 to 2005, the surviving number of rental units developed under this program dropped from 67,000 to 44,000, according to the Community Service Society. And according to the magazine City Limits, another 3,691 apartments were lost in 2006 alone.
If its success had been recognized, West Village Houses could have become a model for other Mitchell-Lama projects that were privatized after the legislated thirty- to forty-year period, especially the large-scale ones like Stuyvesant Town, the thirty-five redbrick buildings in typical housing-project style with 8,757 units on East Fourteenth Street and First Avenue that were privatized a few years ago.10 The privatization of Mitchell-Lama units is one of the significant causes of the recent loss of middle-income housing units all over the city.
Just west of the West Village Houses along the Hudson River waterfront is, perhaps, one of the most interesting districts in the Village and the city. Perhaps I should say “was,” since so much has been lost in recent years. Presumably, the far West Village was omitted from the first Greenwich Village historic district in 1969 because of continuing hope among some public officials of pushing through the urban renewal and West Side Highway widening schemes. In a 1963 letter to the Landmarks Commission promoting the inclusion of these westernmost streets, Jacobs noted, “From its beginnings, the old river-landing settlement combined work, residence and transportation, and these activities, while local were not provincial. They all had ties, in part, to the larger settlement of New York. With truly remarkable integrity and fidelity, this historic land use persists today: work, residence and transportation, with very similar links and the same quality of being local but unprovincial.”
Nevertheless, this veritable heart of the city and country’s economic beginnings—the locus of activity that shaped the larger Village—was omitted. Not much change occurred, however, in the years in the 1970s and ’80s during the fight over Westway, the highway-expansion scheme. Everything was on hold, anticipating the government buyout for the highway. But once that scheme was killed, speculators took a new look and started buying, demolishing, or renovating and slowly rebuilding.
Three highly publicized and aesthetically appealing sixteen-story glass towers designed by architect Richard Meier now sit amid the remaining intimately scaled nineteenth-century houses, stables, and maritime hotels. Yet the Greenwich Village Historic Society, aggressively pushing the Landmarks Commission to expand the historic district, noted that the area still contained fifty-five nineteenth-century buildings as well as dozens of period factories, warehouses, mills, and bakeries. Correctly, the GVHS argued that this area’s “gritty and more heterogeneous architecture was mistakenly consigned to the dustbin of preservation history when it was overlooked for inclusion” in the historic district. However, since one of the commission’s guidelines devalues areas that have been substantially altered over time, the commission was slow to respond.
JACOBS MAKES THE CASE AGAIN
In 2003, shortly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, I was asked by Deputy Mayor Patti Harris to serve as a commissioner on the Landmarks Preservation Commission. When I went on the commission, Jane was skeptical at first but then agreed it would be a worthwhile thing for me to do. Subsequently, she urged that I promote the designation of this “most interesting and historically illuminating and valuable part of Greenwich Village.” In a letter to me for transmittal to the Landmarks Commission, she wrote:
For many people, like the New Urbanists for instance, the important ideas of mixed uses, functional diversity, and self-organization and organic adaptability are little more than trendy planning and design fashions, susceptible to being used inauthentically and meaninglessly . . . [but] the far west village . . . is the authentic seed bed and nursery of these qualities in Manhattan, beginning in colonial times and persisting thereafter. It may well be the most important historical area of New York, for that reason. It was the place of origin of many of the city’s important industries, such as machine manufacturing, food preserving, publishing and printing, to name a few, and . . . remnants of this history persist there, still appropriately very mixed, along with evidence of trains and adaptations. Even the roots of the meat market district itself were there.
It has been overlooked and undervalued, I think, precisely because it has never been considered trendy, like the meat market district in recent times and the Henry James rowhouses and the bohemian village before the meat market. But it is something better than trendy. It is authentic. It was deeply influential. It will be a great pity if its remaining witness and evidence are wiped away in favor of towers with expensive views, empty of history . . . I beg of you, don’t let this happen . . . .
The far West Village was designated a week after Jacobs died in April 2006.
THE EAST VILLAGE—ANOTHER WORLD
Greenwich Village is a microcosm of the city, an assortment of very different communities in close proximity to one another. The East Village is the most different from the rest of the Village, and it is here that some of the precursors of regeneration were first occurring in the 1970s, as noted earlier regarding the Cooper Square Committee and other citizen-based efforts.
Like the South Bronx in the 1970s, officially no one cared. And no one paid attention to the small things happening in the East Village. No money was available anyway to do a Moses-style renewal on an area best known for high crime and deteriorating housing. Slumlords predominated. City services were almost nonexistent. With a history of Irish, German, East European, and Hispanic immigrants, the East Village defied easy categorizing. Pockets of social and economic energy, however, produced an almost sub-rosa vitality to which mainstream New Yorkers were oblivious, unless, of course, they dared venture forth to dine at vintage East European restaurants or delicatessens or attend a performance at the avant-garde La Mama or one of the offbeat music venues. St. Mark’s Place was as far east as most venturers would go, where Yoko Ono performed at the Bridge Theater or Andy Warhol presented the Velvet Underground at the Dom, formerly a Polish entertainment hall. Beats, hippies, punks, and postpunks all settled or passed through here. Artists found studios. Galleries followed. Music venues appeared everywhere.
It is here—in empty lots—that the Green Guerillas launched the community garden movement that is today international in scope. The city under Mayor Giuliani auctioned some off to private developers, but after an intense, contentious battle and the intervention of philanthropists, some of those locally created parks survived and are now overseen by the Parks Department. Squatters took over city-owned abandoned buildings that the city had no program or money to deal with. A variety of community-based efforts evolved and were replicated in derelict neighborhoods around the city, as mentioned in chapter 1.
The tag East Village was meant to clearly distinguish the area from the rest of Greenwich Village. So far, except for incursions by NYU, the East Village has been spared much of the march of high-rise development so visible elsewhere in the city. This predominantly tenement district has also been spared an excessive proliferation of mass retailers, primarily due to the small scale of most of its retail spaces and a lower population density than found in areas of large-scale apartment houses. As such, it remains an incubator for fledgling designers of all kinds looking for small and cheap space to test their new offerings. Like the rest of Greenwich Village, this ever-changing enclave has its share of community activists willing to take on the large-scale forces that could bring corrosive, not productive, change.
If history had taken a different turn and the community had been less vigilant, all of Greenwich Village, East and West, would be a completely different place today. Instead, it is both different, reflecting many small changes, and the same, its basic physical, social, and economic fabric intact. The economic and social mix is not as diverse, but this is a citywide phenomenon visible in many neighborhoods, not just a Village issue.
Jane Jacobs is probably most popularly known for writing about the Village, especially Hudson Street, where she lived. Too many people make the mistake of defining her observations there as advocacy for the replication of its small-scale and “quaint” mixtures. This could not be further from the truth. It was not about tall buildings versus short, modernist versus Federalist, loft versus residential, small business versus large. The Village was her laboratory to observe the larger truths about urban life. Hers was not a prescription of what should happen but an observation of whatdoeshappen when certain genuine urban conditions exist. In all her writing, she used specific examples to illustrate observable truths, never intending them to be prescriptive. In her description above about the importance of the undesignated portion of the Village, she referred to “the important ideas of mixed uses, functional diversity, and self-organization and organic adaptability.” In this case she was referring to the Village, but she applied those ideas to many urban areas that look nothing like the Village.
Each area of the Village offers lessons applicable elsewhere in the city and beyond. These are lessons from community-based resistance to inappropriate change or from successful community-based solutions to real, not manufactured, challenges and problems. But none of the Village battles or victories compare to the next area in the spotlight, SoHo.