By Brian J. Pape, AIA
Today’s residents of the West Village owe a lot to the activists who lived here before us. They say “Hindsight is 20/20,” but we still speculate on “what might have been.”
Google the still active committee, WestVillageCommittee.html, and you’ll find a little history and their current activities, but you have to dig deeper to get a true sense of their accomplishments. And for that we can thank Village Preservation for a newly posted archive on their website, https://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/pdf/WVCScan1.pdf.
Let’s recount the battles and victories and imagine what might have been if they had not fought for their ideals.
On Feb. 26th, 1961, a meeting of residents was called to form the Committee to Save the West Village (changing it to The West Village Committee a year later). Jane Jacobs and Dr. Don Dodelson were elected co-chairs. The immediate crisis was that the Board of Estimates had petitioned the federal government for a Title I project for Urban Renewal funds for the area from Hudson and Christopher Streets to the river and to 11th Street.
Mrs. Jacobs, now famous for her leadership since 1955 and authorship of seminal texts, and Dr. Dodelson, respected for saving the area just north of 11th Street in 1949, worked with subcommittees to deal with many challenges, coming to decisions on a consensus basis. Fighting City Hall seemed like a quixotic endeavor.
They knew what “Urban Renewal” meant: wholesale demolition to make way for superblocks of tower apartments, perhaps exactly like the Robert Fulton Houses in Chelsea constructed in that same era. The Urban Renewal impetus may have been aided by plans to utilize the High Line viaduct running adjacent to Washington Street, which had already destroyed 640 buildings in its path.
The Village wanted to conserve and preserve their community, not scatter people far and wide, perhaps never to return. By not only opposing the Title I project, but also initiating a positive vision for the empty sites and the existing fabric of architecture, they were able to rally support and convince the powers-that-be to grant a reprieve.
In March of 1962, the City Board of Estimates, at the behest of the Department of Marine and Aviation, resolved to study the reuse of the viaduct for a truck route serving the existing industry. It would have been similar to the elevated Westside Highway to the west, or the proposed freeway through SoHo, complete with on-off ramps, of course. More destruction. The Village rallied again and defeated it, and proposed the West Village Houses in its place (finally built in 1974).
In historic preservation, the maxim is that once it’s gone there is no return. The Village knew there would be no second chance—they had to stop the destructive plans or there would be no West Village to come home to. We celebrate with them the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
Contact The West Village Committee at P.O. Box 20017, New York, NY 10014 or firstname.lastname@example.org