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Mapping the Italian South Village

It’s no secret that preservationists often turn to maps for inspiration and research, but it isn’t all the time that a map can can lead to an extremely revealing discovery.  Over six years ago, when GVSHP was in the throes of its South Village research, we came across a deceivingly simple map from 1919.  This map confirmed many suspicions that we had already had…..

The demarcated section of this 1919 map points out the South Village as an Italian-American enclave

Greenwich Village was designated as an historic district in 1969, the second of its kind in New York City.  This designation came after legendary activism by Jane Jacobs and fellow activists when the city proposed a series of over a dozen small districts instead of one large district.  The final result was one large district and three small ones.  Landmark protections were extended westward in 2003 and 2006.  However, according to GVSHP’s Executive Director, in his forward to Andrew Dolkart’s South Village Report:

Residents, visitors, and even long-time preservationists are still shocked to discover that what many consider the heart of Greenwich Village – the area south of Washington Square Park/West Fourth Street and east of Seventh Avenue, also known as the South Village – is not a designated historic district, and its historic buildings could be lost at any time. Streets in this area, including Bleecker, Carmine, MacDougal, Sullivan, Thompson, Downing, Cornelia, Jones, Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, are some of the Village’s most charming and iconic, and contain links to some of the neighborhood and the city’s most important historic events. They also formed the cradle of the Village’s Italian-immigrant community.

In 2002, GVSHP recognized this severe threat and began an intensive survey of every building in the South Village.  Based on the above information it always seemed strange that this area was not included within the original district, but preservationists long had suspicions as to why this may have been so.  These were confirmed in 2005 with a trip to the Museum of the City of New York.

There on display was a map produced by the State Legislature in 1919, charting the location of various immigrant settlements throughout New York City. Clearly demarcated as an identifiable Italian immigrant enclave was a section of the southern portion of Greenwich Village forming almost the exact boundaries of the South Village, the area left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District.  While ethnic biases probably had nothing to do with the Commission’s decision fifty years later to exclude this area, the connection is nevertheless clear. This is a neighborhood whose built form and history were utterly shaped and transformed by working-class immigrants, most prominently, but not exclusively, Italian Americans. And while the genteel townhouses and picturesque cul-de-sacs of the West Village were considered the stuff of historic preservation in the 1960s, working-class architecture, consisting of tenements and converted rowhouses, were not considered by most to be worthy of preservation, nor was immigrant and ethnic history yet deemed worthy of recognition through landmark designation.

As time has gone on, though, we have become more and more in tune to the historic merit of neighborhoods rooted in the immigrant experience.  In fact, these area have proven to be among the most resilient and vital in the City.  The GVSHP-commissioned report Italians of the South Village takes an in-depth look at the strong immigrant roots that make the South Village so worthy of landmarks protection.

In June of 2010, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 1/3 of the proposed South Village Historic District.  Officially called the Greenwich Village Extension II, this designation was definitely a step in the right direction.  However, the remaining unprotected 2/3 of the South Village remains in dire need of landmark status.  To find out how you can help to preserve this beautifully-intact immigrant enclave, CLICK HERE!

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