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Oral History: Claire Tankel

Photograph by Claire Tankel, November 1, 1958. Stanley Tankel drives a car through Washington Square on the date the Square was closed to cars. The sign on Tankel's car reads: "Last Car Thru Washington Square". GVSHP Archives, Claire Tankel Collection.
Photograph by Claire Tankel, November 1, 1958. Stanley Tankel drives a car through Washington Square on the date the Square was closed to cars. The sign on Tankel’s car reads: “Last Car Thru Washington Square”. GVSHP Archives, Claire Tankel Collection.

GVSHP is excited to share our oral history collection with the public, and hope they will shed more light on what makes Greenwich Village and the East Village such unique and vibrant areas. Each of these histories highlights the experiences and insights of long-time residents, usually active in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life of the neighborhood.  Recently we launched new collections focusing on the East and South Villages, and have been highlighting some of the featured individuals on Off the Grid.  These posts can be found here, and the entire oral history collection here.

Born to immigrant parents in 1926, Claire Tankel is the widow of Stanley Tankel, a city planner and activist who was involved in Greenwich Village’s early preservation efforts. Claire and her husband both grew up in Mount Vernon, New York and met in college. Claire graduated from the University of Michigan, and Stanley earned two degrees in architecture from Harvard and received a coveted Fulbright Scholarship. At that time, Claire and Stanley went to Europe where Stanley decided to focus on a career in planning rather than in architecture.

The Tankels then moved to Greenwich Village (a renovated apartment at 68 Carmine Street) to start a family because, “Greenwich Village represented all the kind of unique people and the unique way of looking at— I mean Margaret [Mead] lived here.”

68 Carmine Street today (image courtesy of Google Street View)
68 Carmine Street today (image courtesy of Google Street View)

Reflecting on the neighborhood during the 1950s when they moved in, Claire states,

“It was this wonderful neighborhood, full of Mafia people, so you knew it was safe. You knew it was safe. Jane [Jacobs] described it best when she said, ‘The eyes of the community were watching.’ We even felt it here. There used to be a man across the street who watched out of his window. He was an ex-policeman, and he knew everything that was going on on Bank Street. So, this idea that the eyes of the city and in fact, coming back to the Mafia we used to see (in fact, Stanley said, ‘Don’t look!’) because parking right in front of our house was a black limousine that used to draw up regularly and people would go in and out the limousine.”

In 1956, Stanley called together planning, architecture and real estate professionals and formed a group called the Greenwich Village Study, which sought to make the community more livable and focused on issues of housing, traffic patterns and parks in the Village. The group reflected the idea that a loose community of professionals could help improve the quality of living in and around the neighborhood. Coincidentally, at this time, Robert Moses had proposed running a highway through Washington Square. It would have been an extension of Fifth Avenue called Fifth Avenue South.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs

Stanley and the group worked closely with influential activists and politicians including Jane Jacobs, Norman Redlich, Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lindsay. After a public hearing on November 1, 1958, a “ribbon tying” ceremony was held to mark the inception of a trial period in which the park would be free of vehicular traffic. Stanley drove the last car through Washington Square Park, and Claire snapped an iconic photograph of this historic event. She reflects,

“My dog’s in the car, too. It was an incredible day and we had this funny little car. I mean, part of what we also believed in was, you know, little cars in the city, no gas-guzzlers. That picture shows not only our funny little car, because Jane bought one after that, but it never became a best seller. Yes it did, the Fiat, but not a great seller and it never went on from there…”

In August 1959, it became official: the park would remain closed to traffic. Later, Stanely was appointed to the Mayoral study committee to draft legislation for a landmarks law to protect historic structures. Once the New York City Landmarks Law was passed in 1965, Stanely was appointed as Vice Chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Stanley died on March 31, 1968 at the age of 45.

Click here to listen to a short audio clip from Claire Tankel’s oral history

Click here to read the full interview transcript

And be sure to check our upcoming programs page soon as we celebrate Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday with programming beginning in May!

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