By Barry Benepe
I wrote my first article for WestView just over ten years ago in March 2008. It explored the need to calm traffic around Union Square Park, one of our city’s most crowded historic public places. Thirty years earlier, I had prepared a plan called Three Parks for Community Board Five, of which, I was a member. This plan proposed to link Madison Square to Washington Square along the historic Ladies’ Mile along Broadway and past Union Square. The emphasis was on channeling auto traffic and increasing pedestrian space. I made new drawings for Union Square which were incorporated in the visionary work of Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, Mayor Bloomberg’s pragmatic street planner.
Broadway above Union Square is now a landscaped garden terrace with tables and chairs. 17th Street has colored slices providing a pedestrian promenade. Fourth Avenue has bike lanes. The North and West sides of Union Square have seen parking lots converted to a true public square, limited to pedestrians, and the Greenmarket Farmers Market (four days a week).
During this time, we at WestView cheered and supported the process which humanized the city. All the writers for this unique monthly journal address the pressing needs of a city which should be devoted to the welfare of its citizens, whether health and hospitals, education, culture, parks and open space, historic preservation and its unique Hudson River waterfront. The talented writers meet monthly at the home of its publisher, George Capsis, where they share ideas and inspiration, seeking and welcoming feedback.
The shared stimulus of these discussions help produce a more inspired, informed range of writing that recalls another group of writers based on the Left Bank in Paris. Founded by Sylvia Beach, an American born in Baltimore in 1887, Shakespeare and Company became a gathering place for expatriate authors and where French writers could pursue their interests in American literature. It has continued to this day at 37 rue de la Bucherie, overlooking the Seine, and the towers of Notre Dame in the distance. It offers a retreat for writers and readers to visit its library or purchase from a wide range of French, American and English literature while sitting leisurely at one of the tiny cafe tables, bordering the river, outside.
There is an affinity of these two, WestView and Shakespeare and Company across the Atlantic. Both are linked to the excitement of shared knowledge and ideas. The cafe tables on the rue de la Bucherie and those in George Capsis’s garden provide a nexus of intellectual discovery.
Finally, WestView has moved into another non-print area: music. Paris, too, in the 1920s, was a hotbed of American jazz musicians, as well as American writers. In the past year, George Capsis witnessed the slow draw-down of the congregation at St. Veronica Church on Christopher Street. With his background in and love of music, coupled with his awareness of the extraordinary acoustic beauty of this historic church, he allowed the building to give birth to a new life. He put up a huge investment to bring in a small orchestra and chorus, under the baton of his long-time friend, Michael Feldman, to present glorious performances of music written by George Frederick Handel, Bach, Beethoven and others. The space resonated with the harmonies of this music, and members of the community found a new religion: music.