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Memo From Manhattan: Town vs. Gown in Gotham

By Sharon Zukin

On a recent Saturday afternoon, along with 200 other two-legged residents of Greenwich Village and an equal number of their four-legged friends, I attended a protest meeting against New York University’s Plan 2031, a 20-year strategy to increase the size of NYU’s physical presence in New York City by 6 million square feet, 2 million of those to be newly built in the heart of our neighborhood.

Photo by Sharon Zukin.

To be honest, the canine protesters came first. Their owners, incensed by the university’s plan to demolish a small Japanese garden, a dog run and other open spaces surrounding, or enclosed by, the present superblocks of faculty housing south of Washington Square Park, led the dogs to Judson Memorial Church on the southern edge of the park in a camera-ready show of disapproval. But this was just the prelude to more serious mobilizing.

The protest was called by Deborah Glick, the district’s elected representative to the New York State Assembly. She spoke strongly against the university’s plan and introduced other local elected officials — State Senator Thomas Duane; Brad Hoylman, the chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 2; and representatives of several block and neighborhood associations — who promised to support the community’s interests against NYU’s all-out campaign to win approval for the expansion.

“This project is just too big,” Senator Duane said.

“Never before has a residential neighborhood been asked to give up its historic character in favor of a commercial-retail complex to benefit a large private university,” another speaker exclaimed.

“Save the Village,” chanted Assemblymember Glick.

“Light, space, green,” the crowd responded.

Photo by Sharon Zukin.

Greenwich Village does have a strong sense of its own history and identity, which is in large part founded on the David-and-Goliath legend of one of its most famous residents, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who worked with her neighbors to defeat Robert Moses’s audacious plans to ruin the neighborhood by urban renewal. During the 1950s and early 1960s Jacobs and other residents of the West Village engaged in vociferous though nonviolent protests against the building of a road through the middle of Washington Square Park, against high-rise public housing projects and against a cross-Manhattan expressway, all of which would have torn through the dense grid of small blocks that make up lower Manhattan.

Speakers at the NYU rally could not avoid evoking Jacobs’s spirit. “Thirty-five years ago,” the chair of the community board said — erring by two decades but getting the crowd’s attention — Jacobs fought powerful forces and won. We have to “embody her spirit” now, he said. “We’re going to fight just like Jane Jacobs did.”

Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Community to save the West Village. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But this is not a fight of poor people or defenseless rental tenants against eviction. It’s a fight of relatively privileged residents to protect their very pleasant urban neighborhood, with its low-rise buildings, little cafés and stores and low-key charms. Greenwich Village is “a neighborhood’s neighborhood” and its residents keenly feel it. “We’re used to struggles to keep our neighborhood wonderful,” Senator Duane declared.

In recent years the neighborhood, like others in the city, has been steadily encroached upon by monolithic homogenization. So many chain stores clot the avenues that every intersection above a subway station offers the same array of corporate drugstores, banks and office supplies shops. The area is so desirable — and housing prices are so high — that developers readily petition for permission to build more floors than zoning laws allow.

NYU is the hometown Behemoth in this process. From the 1950s, initially with Robert Moses’ support, the university has steadily taken more space in the heart of the Village. It expanded from its historic core east of Washington Square Park to occupy most of the buildings on all four sides of the park and along the side streets, near the site of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. NYU eradicated several blocks of old loft buildings south of the park to build superblocks and tall towers, all for faculty housing. It also built dorms for undergraduates on East 14 Street near Union Square Park and law dorms in the South Village. It occupies buildings in the East Village, on the Bowery and in SoHo. Two local entertainment and shopping streets—Bleecker Street and University Place—have been in effect transformed into food courts for the expanding population of NYU students.

The university has already eaten a large chunk of Greenwich Village. The only way the community can fight them now is to seize the high ground of scarce environmental values: “Light, space, green.”

Though this for now is their mobilizing mantra, the community must rely on the ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process to make their anger felt. This procedure requires several levels of public hearings and approvals before big construction projects in New York City can begin. The community board has no veto power in this process. But at every step the community can inject uncertainty and inflict pain. At best they can force the developer of the project to compromise or withdraw.

Since Jane Jacobs’s time, Greenwich Village has become an expensive, upper middle class neighborhood where it is more common to find restaurants serving an $18 bowl of pasta than a Big Mac. But it still has a small vestige of affordable housing and independently owned stores. Though it doesn’t have the deep personal ties and social interdependencies of a real village, it maintains its traditional political independence and local pride. This culture, which continues to attract migrants and visitors from all over the world, is worth saving.

City dwellers should not be forced to accept the expansion of large institutions, whether they are corporate headquarters or universities, throughout their neighborhoods. We need small blocks not superblocks, we need human scale not high-rise academic towers. We cannot sacrifice the life of a neighborhood to global competition.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. You can read her previous posts Memo From Manhattan here.

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