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Stories of the Village

Westbeth. Photo courtesy of Shelley Seccombe
Westbeth. Photo courtesy of Shelley Seccombe

This week, our friends at the Jefferson Market Branch Library will host workshops for a new project they are undertaking called Your Village, Your Stories. The library’s foray into recording and archiving the stories of the neighborhood had us thinking about GVSHP’s own collection of oral histories, which include narratives by early preservation activists and those who conceived of and implemented the creation of Westbeth, the live-work space for artists in the West Village. These collections, which will soon be augmented by oral histories of the South and East Villages, are not just bits of nostalgia. The narratives serve as tools for historians of the community, create mental images of what a space or community used to be like, and perhaps most interestingly, they also contain nuggets of wisdom that could inform current and future activism on behalf of the community.

This 2007 interview with architect Tod Williams, who was a young architect in Richard Meier’s office during the conversion of Westbeth from industrial buildings to artists housing complex, pinpoints a particular period of change for the West Village.

WILLIAMS: Well, I would say that Westbeth, to me, absolutely drew an important weight of population, even though it wasn’t supported early on, to that west side of Manhattan. And began to bring energy right along the street and say, “We’re going to begin to address the water”, the water’s edge, and Jane Jacobs housing just below that also did that, began to populate the space. And Westbeth’s case actually I admired at least as much because it took these industrial buildings and reused them.

L: Historic view in 1963, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery; R: Today

For newcomers to a community, it can be hard to imagine how a street corner or a building has changed over time. Margot Gayle, in a 1996 interview describing her work on behalf of what is now the Jefferson Market Library, creates a mental image of what the building was like in a derelict state, before the conversion of the building from 1965-1967.

GAYLE: I must say, I go down there now and I just feel like I’m seeing an old friend when I stand there on 9th Street and look down there.  When I think of the interior of that building with pigeon dung all over it, dead birds lying on the floor, electrical cords dangling from the ceiling, partitions left over from its being used for the census.  Everybody had walked away from it and left it in worse repair.  It’s a very picturesque thought in my mind.

Last car through Washington Square, Claire Tankel Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 1958.
Last car through Washington Square, Claire Tankel Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 1958.

In this 1997 interview with Jane Jacobs, she presciently speaks about the danger of large institutions while addressing New York University’s role in the community’s drive to halt traffic in Washington Square Park.

KENT: Did NYU—just to go back—did NYU have any part in closing of the Square?

JACOBS:  Its part was to urge putting traffic through the square. And here we come to a dismal thing about most city institutions. They are—they’re blackmailed. They are so easily blackmailed because they want various things from a city. They need favors. And therefore they try to cooperate with the City, or whatever political jurisdiction they are in, to the point of the destruction of the area—and that has often happened as a result of the way institutions behave. They are not good neighbors because they are so subject to blackmail—political blackmail.

KENT: And the favors that they need, are what?  Tax abatements?  Zoning changes?

JACOBS: That sort of thing.  But also, mostly they have to do with property. In those days they were all expanding. Later, even more so. They want variances on what people are normally allowed to do with buildings.  And they want—they even want expropriation of property for their purposes.

You can explore more of the treasures of GVSHP’s oral history collection, accessing full transcripts and audio clips, on the GVSHP website.

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