Volume 73, Number 54 | May 12 - 18, 2004

Old allies and fans inspired by legendary activist

By Lincoln Anderson

For some it brought back old memories of fighting — and winning — the good fight. For others, it was a chance to hear and meet an icon. But all those who saw Jane Jacobs speak last Friday night at the Village Community School agreed it was just wonderful to have her back in Greenwich Village once again.

After Jacobs’ speech, among those standing on line to get her signature on either her new book or her old book was David Gruber, president of the Carmine St. Block Association and the South Village Landmark Association.

“I went to planning school and got my master’s because of her,” he said. “I went to Pratt because I was so impressed by her book. She had this thing where bars were good for the neighborhood — that they’re like the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. Everyone said, ‘Who wants a bar in the neighborhood?’ She said it’s like a safety zone; they’re open late.”

Recalled former Councilmember Carol Greitzer, cradling a copy of Jacobs’ first book, which she was buying again, “I just remember one point, they took her in, one of the East Side precincts, maybe the Ninth Precinct, over a protest against the Lower Manhattan Expressway. And we all waited for them to release her.”

Ray Matz, the architect who designed the low-rise West Village Houses, took a moment out from greeting old friends to explain the concept behind the buildings. Their design bucked the “tower in a park” trend of their day.

“The goal was, as she said, to get away from the stereotype,” Matz said, “to just get back to the way people wanted to live — not the way the politicians wanted them to live. The popular project at the time was to build 13-story high-rise buildings. Build four of them [along Washington St.] — that’s what the city was saying was the thing to do.

“She realized the thing to do was to keep it the way it was, rather than change it,” Matz continued. “If you read her book — the further you get away from the ground, you lose contact with what’s going on in the neighborhood. You get up above four to five stories, you forget about the neighborhood.”

Commented Betty Rinckwitz of Perry St., “She’s fabulous. She’s got a sense of humor, which I didn’t expect. What I really liked was her sense of humor.”

Abe Greiss, 86, who came with his wife, Carmen Vega Greiss, was a veteran with Jacobs of those famous battles.

“We worked on this together, the whole thing, from the beginning,” he said of his times working with Jacobs. “It’s a wonderful feeling [to see tonight] how many people appreciated her for what she did.”

Greiss remembered the day that he first saw a small map of the proposed West Village renewal zone in the newspaper and immediately calling Jacobs.

“I said, ‘I think we should have a meeting.’ She said, ‘We’re having one already at St. Luke’s Church.’ I said, ‘When do set up the barricades?’ She said, ‘We don’t need one, we’ve got the meeting.’ ”

As Greiss remembered it, the proposed “slum clearance” renewal zone extended from 11th St. down to St. Luke’s Pl., and from Hudson St. over to the Hudson River.

A sculptor and teacher at F.I.T., Greiss recalled that he and Jacobs used to share backyards and how she used to look over as he was carving marble, and say, “I like your work.”

Others who played key roles, according to Greiss, were Leon Seidel, who then owned the Lion’s Head tavern, and Rachel Wall.

“There are only a few left from the original group,” he noted.

Greiss’s eyesight isn’t so good anymore, so he didn’t need to buy another book. Instead, he brought for Jacobs to sign the original 1963 plan for the West Village Houses, a thin booklet with schematic drawings inside, with a blue cover.

Stu Waldman, of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront, opened the cover of one of Jacobs’ books to show her signature with a special note to him: “Best wishes and admiration.”

“I’m going to treasure this,” he said.

Waldman, who is helping lead the fight to try to stop the escalating development of the Village waterfront and Far West Village, noted that a few years ago he’d sent Jacobs galleys of his book “Maritime Mile: The Story of the Greenwich Village Waterfront.”

“She told me afterwards, ‘You have to save the waterfront,’ ” he recalled.

“It was wonderful,” Waldman said of Jacobs’ talk last Friday night. “I just want to know from her — how you win.”

Asked by The Villager about the recent building boom along the Hudson, specifically about Richard Meier’s towers, a symbol of the current wave of development, Jacobs didn’t have anything to say about Meier’s buildings per se. Still, she made her feelings clear.

“I think that waterfront area should be preserved,” she said. “It’s the most historic part of the neighborhood.”

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