Recalling Jane Jacobs where she headed off a highway
By Albert Amateau
A cross section of Greenwich Village activists paid tribute to the late Jane Jacobs, the former Village resident whose books transformed the way people think about urban issues, at an Oct. 3 benefit for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
The event at Keith McNally’s Balthazar restaurant in Soho also celebrated the three-block expansion last May of the Greenwich Village Historic District and the creation of the nearby one-block Weehawken St. Historic District on the Village waterfront.
“We’re happy the historic district was expanded for the first time in 35 years, but we still have challenges ahead,” Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. director, told the nearly 300 paying guests at the event.
Among the challenges is the prospect of a new condo-hotel proposed by Donald Trump at Varick and Spring Sts. in a manufacturing zone, in which condo owners may choose to live in the units or rent them to hotel guests. G.V.S.H.P. has denounced the proposal as an illegal ruse to avoid existing zoning.
Another challenge is the three-year effort by G.V.S.H.P. to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider a South Village Historic District south of Washington Square to W. Houston St. and down to Broome St. along Sullivan and Thompson Sts.
Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, reminded guests at the event that they were sitting in a restaurant on Spring and Crosby Sts. in the thriving commercial and residential district now known as Soho. The converted building where Balthazar is located would probably have disappeared if the Lower Manhattan Expressway, promoted by the late Robert Moses, had not been defeated in 1969 through the efforts of Jane Jacobs and her fellow activists.
The expressway planned between the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg Bridge would have been elevated along the north side of Broome St. (a block south of Balthazar on Spring St.) and would have resulted in the displacement of more than 800 businesses and 1,400 apartments.
“I wonder what Jane Jacobs would think if she were here,” Goldberger said. “Would she see it as a triumph of the low-rise neighborhood that she championed for the Village or would she see it as an example of gentrification and its consequences?” he asked.
Goldberger, who is also an endowed professor of design and architecture at New School University, noted that Jacobs “did not want all cities to be little Greenwich Villages,” and did not want her ideas to become mantras on urban development. “She was against dogma,” he said.
Calvin Trillin, a resident of the West Village for 50 years and a humorist whose articles appear in The New Yorker and The Nation, wondered why the Village has been the chosen home of writers who came to New York City from smaller towns across the nation. Trillin, who occasionally assumes the persona of a Midwesterner in the Big Apple, was born and raised in Kansas City. Jacobs herself, he noted, came to the Village from Scranton, Pa., and left it for Toronto, still a small town compared to New York
“I think we all settled in the Village because it is more like home,” Trillin said. He recalled asking a Villager what was the difference between the Village and Uptown, and getting the answer, “I don’t know, I’ve never been Uptown.”