By Senior Minister at Judson Church
The Village can’t be what it used to be any more. Been there, done that.
It may be that the times have changed. Since 9-11, most people are more concerned about safety than we are about freedom. We even say good-bye with the words “Be Safe,” as though safe were a legitimate or even possible objective.
Or it could be that the place—the “village”—has changed. We can’t be as gentrified as we are, with rents as high as they are, and still be Avant, bohemian, weird, open, free, experimental, edgy, birkenstocked. The values of freedom and safety are in pretty direct competition with each other, for most people, most of the time. In these cliched binaries, we imagine it takes more poor people and edge people and unemployed people to manage the job description of the hippie. Starving artists have artistic nobility; people with jobs don’t.
Our purpose in the panel hosted by Alec Baldwin on May 20th at 4 at Judson was to bust these cliched binaries. Of course, they are somewhat true, even if only true in the way we tell stories about ourselves and then start to believe them. They are also not true, in the same way that clichés carry their own self-destructive ammunition.
The only thing that is really true is that our time and our space did change. Things do change. Static is the ultimate safety—and of course, being static is the most unsafe thing we can do. The very affection for the static, the self-protective view that things will stay the same or “always be this way,” is mightily dangerous. Embracing change is edgy; stifling change or even thoughts about change is stuffy. If we want to become antique, along with the sixties, of course we can do so. But we can also dust ourselves off and brush ourselves off and lift ourselves up from fundamentally static stories.
Greenwich Village has done what every other place, in every other time, does. It changed. The Village changed. Oh, my.
The Village changed primarily by the extraordinary success of NYU. At the lecture by architectural historian Francis Moroney at Judson in April, a surprise slide was shown. It was from 1951 and it showed NYU as the only institution around Washington Square Park. Judson was disappeared from the photo. We just weren’t there in the consultant’s proposal. Robert Moses is said to have understood that Judson was already “gone” when he put together his infamous proposal to drive through the park. Note that such centralizing was a part of the NYU success then and never appeared. Might similar things be happening with the proposed 14% footprint increase, projected earlier and now contested, by the dominant institution in our village?
Or could something different happen than 14% or with 14%? When the last renovation of Washington Square park happened, people wrung their hands and then re-wrung their hands. How could a park change? All the poor people and drug dealers would be gone. They are not.
There is absolutely no question that NYU raised the rents in the village, forcing out a lot of wannabe, if aging, Bohemians. That economic fact cannot be ignored.
Simultaneously, what is wrong with the success of an urban academic institution? Does it always come with so much higher rent that nothing can be good in its wake? The benefits to our lives here and now are incalculable. The fundamental one is the global diversity that is at our doorstep. We are much less white because of NYU.
I taught a small course at NYU in the spring called “Marrying Outside Your Tribe.” Through our doors marched Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Baptists, Hindus, Coptic Christians, Catholics, Dutch Protestants, and a lovely array of unbelievers who had fallen in love with true believers. That kind of diversity cannot be found in many places. That diversity is what truly makes villages and cities great.
Likewise, there is merit in the intellectual project. Stand quietly in the park some nights (if you can, so vibrant are the competing musical offerings) and you can hear the sound of thousands of minds humming their way to something like understanding. Then there is the green. NYU has extraordinary investments in its own energy, most of which make environmentalists proud.
All of that being said, is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? NYU’s very desire to increase its footprint causes untold suffering to innocent people, the kind of people who used to be part of our many congregations and coffee houses and local businesses’ success.
“Whither,” the panel, asks the question of gentrification and the village: how do the two fit together? Could NYU and its own liberal values not be corralled for something edgy and interesting, before we all just go to sleep in our nostalgias for different pasts, pasts which are no longer possible?
I am hoping that our little panel, hosted by Villager Alec Baldwin, shed a little light on these big matters. I hope someone will show up and be funny and think a thought that hasn’t yet been thought. Can a great university be as creative in a community as it can in a classroom or power plant? What kind of housing in the village would magnify the beauty of our small scale, keep sun and light in our windows AND be affordable? How could economic diversity be a learning advantage to the students NYU is preparing for the world? How could NYU self-tax on behalf of the teaching it does? How could NYU see missional value in economic diversity?
Bohemians are best when we manage the tension between freedom and safety so well that we become interesting. Interesting lives beyond static thinking. Interesting is open to the new and the next which are always built within the tales told about the old and the beautiful.
Suketu Mehta, who teaches at NYU, has written a book THIS LAND IS OUR LAND. NYU is much more of a colonist than its board understands. NYU is also a tremendous asset to Greenwich Village. What could it and we do together?
We could become the greenest urban village and university in the world. We could close off University and Waverly and more streets to cars and link a genuine footprint between the two great parks near us, Union and Washington. We could also tax or recommend self-taxing the other footprint. If NYU must grow, how much affordable and low-rise housing would it like to build or rehab or turn into small houses? How much economic diversity would be good for the educational mission? What days do non-NYU residents get at the new gym? Or when can seniors or poor people ride the buses? How could NYU turn community board meetings into interesting conversations instead of group therapy sessions, where everybody yells at everybody else?
Big questions of value—freedom, safety, justice, change—matter to people and institutions and to villages. Static has little truth and no value. Static just sits around complaining. People who are edgy go to the edge of reality and think together.