Volume 77 / Number 48 - April 30 - May 6, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Celebrating 75 years:
Villager photo by Shoshanna Bettencourt
Around since ’33; Fighting good fight since circa ’60
By CAROL GREITZER
You know how old-timers here tell you that the Village isn’t what it used to be. Well, when I moved here more than 50 years ago, people were saying exactly the same thing. I specifically remember Ruth Wittenberg (she of the Village Square Triangle) telling us about the good times back in the ’30s, when so many well-known artists and writers lived here. And when you went to their townhouse on W. 10th St., there were pictures and sculptures (many of them portraits or busts of Ruth and Philip, her husband) by the likes of the Zorachs, Kunyoshi and Ben Shahn.
The world has changed, and so has the Village. Struggling young artists probably can’t afford to live here anymore, but on the other hand, there’s Westbeth, home to many people in the arts. We hope some things have changed for the better…that there will not be a repeat of the kind of Depression-era ad from those early days recalled in your 30th anniversary issue, wherein a “refined person” offered to exchange babysitting or typing for fresh fruits and vegetables. The Villager debut — 1933 — also marked the start of the Roosevelt presidency, which launched the revolutionary programs resulting in economic changes that moved millions of people from poverty to the middle class. Not only was there social security, but the W.P.A. and other New Deal agencies gave employment to many, including artists, and built the roads and infrastructure we enjoy today. The fact that today not enough federal funds are being allocated to our now decaying infrastructure is another story.
But back to the ’50s, when I first read The Villager. It was like a small-town newspaper, with The Town Crier reporting births, graduations, weddings and news of club meetings. Some weddings got the full treatment — like the following description: “the bride wore an Empire gown of ivory silk with passementerie (whatever that is) and French tulle veil, etc.” Naturally, in addition to biographies of the wedding couple, the names of all the many attendants got prominent mention.
Maybe it was the heated political activity in the Village, maybe it was competition from The Voice, maybe it was your new editor, Bill Honan, but somewhere around 1960 The Villager began a dramatic change — from a paper focusing on “society” news to the all-around prize-winning newspaper it is today. It was certainly generous in the space given to the coverage of my many campaigns for district leader and City Council...and the relevant clippings are in the process of going into my archives.
In further tribute to your anniversary and longevity, I thought it might be appropriate to look at a current development being reported on in your pages, and trace its history back to ancient times — namely 1960. In January of that year you gave front-page coverage to a new wrinkle in the Washington Square Southeast Slum Clearance Project. This was the Robert Moses Title I “slum clearance” action that tore up nine blocks south of Washington Square Park, awarding the northern three blocks to New York University and the remaining six to developers Tishman & Wolfe. After building Washington Square Village, Tishman indicated it wanted to sell the remaining tract to N.Y.U. Villager articles reported strong community opposition, with quotes from many people, including Assemblyman Bill Passannante; Tony Dapolito, Greenwich Village Association president; Pete Caneveri, chairperson of what was then called the Borough President’s Greenwich Village Planning Board; and me, as president of the Village Independent Democrats. Congressman John Lindsay, speaking at a V.I.D. meeting, said the Title I law required that if the original sponsor defaulted, the matter would have to go back to public bidding. But Tishman insisted he would sell only to N.Y.U., and the city, apparently eager to accommodate N.Y.U., allowed that to happen.
As a sop to the community, 505 LaGuardia Pl. was to be built as a middle-income project for non-N.Y.U. Villagers, and the university said it would create an experimental grade school, with enrollment open to youngsters from both the Village and the Lower East Side. This big geographical area would guarantee an integrated school — a concept that was attractive to many people in this community. Alas! While 505 was built, the school never materialized. Having already acquired the land via less than legal means, N.Y.U. went quietly to the Board of Estimate and got an amendment to the agreement, thereby absolving it of its commitment to build a school. We did not discover this treachery till some time later, when the university announced plans for the site.
How could this happen? The Board of Estimate incident took place before charter changes set up official community boards, with the requirement that these boards receive notice of pertinent matters on the calendars of various city agencies. A philosophical change in education policy was the gobbledygook reasoning N.Y.U. gave to excuse its actions. The university never explained why it moved sneakily behind our collective backs to effect this change. Probably because without the promise of the school, Villagers would have continued to oppose N.Y.U.’s acquiring the property.
So what did N.Y.U. substitute for a school that would have served the community? The Coles Sports Center. That’s what! All this took place nearly 50 years ago, but being armed with this back story may provide useful information for Villagers in any future negotiations with N.Y.U. Having acquired a little more sophistication in wheeling and dealing of this sort, I now realize that the borough president, a member of the old Board of Estimate, obviously knew about the switch, and deliberately failed to notify either his planning board or other concerned Villagers. Is there a moral to this tale? Maybe “get it in writing” or “pin down your elected officials.”
And that brings the story up to date, in light of rumors that N.Y.U. may want to replace Coles with a new high-rise structure. The community has a strong moral claim to playing a role in this matter, so keep on reading your local paper for further developments.
And more power to The Villager for continuing coverage of all our local institutions, as you have done for all these years, with your past reporting on saving the Jefferson Market Courthouse, getting the buses out of the park, preventing Robert Moses from bulldozing the West Village, stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway and many other fights.
Greitzer was a New York City councilmember from 1969-’91, representing the Village and other Downtown areas.
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