It’s the case every year – what we want for the holidays, much like every other time of year, is to save our neighborhood. On a very cold December 20, 2004, that was exactly our message when GVSHP hosted a press conference at which we asked the Mayor – at the time Michael Bloomberg – to do just that by landmarking and rezoning the Far West Village.
In a stroke of good timing, Mayor Bloomberg happened to walk by while the rally was taking place at 1:00pm on the steps of City Hall, and he was given the giant holiday card (pictured below) saying “To: Mayor Bloomberg, From: the West Village. Season’s Greetings. All We Want for the Holidays is to Save Our Neighborhood.” The card was signed by the hundreds of Village residents and neighborhood preservationists who had attended a town hall a week and a half earlier.
The Town Hall, hosted by GVSHP and other neighborhood organizations, gathered with urgency, deeply aware that this was, as GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman called it, “the 11th hour for the Far West Village.” Historic buildings were facing the wrecking ball, including an 1885 residential building; a vintage 1930s warehouse, an 1832 rowhouse, a 1919 former Nabisco cracker bakery, and former factories and stables. The meeting outlined the landmarking and zoning protections requested in the holiday card.
The history of the Far West Village is a history that holds so many parts of New York’s history – a home for farmers, sailors, historic immigrant communities, and industries that served and connected the whole city. Once “uptown” farmland, later (19th and early 20th centuries) a working waterfront neighborhood, its “jumble of 19th-century houses, stables and cobblestoned streets and turn-of-the-century hotels, tenements, factories, and warehouses captured a sense of place, scale and texture that attracted urban pioneers the world over,” Andrew Berman wrote in an op-ed at the time for The Villager.
The neighborhood started to change in the early 1980s. Laurie Johnston wrote a profile for the New York Times about the Far West Village in 1982 highlighting the increasing rates of development, rent, and population. She wrote:
Traditional apartment houses, none truly high-rise, are outnumbered by sturdy, 100-year-old ”tenements” refurbished to attract the young and prosperous, even as Irish or Italian oldtimers still lean on pillows to watch the world from upper windows…
Two or three decades ago, when many houses had declined into rooming houses but pier operations were already withering, creeping blight seemed to destine the whole area to urban renewal by bulldozer and high-rise development. Activists led by Jane Jacobs, the writer on urban planning, beat back that threat, and community vigilance and economic conditions have since led to a ”renewal” more in the area’s own image.
At the time, “the Westway,” a six-lane underground highway, was being proposed for the Far West Village. After being approved by the city, the plan was nixed for environmental concerns that centered around striped bass, of all creatures (how’s that for city planning trivia?!). In a debrief for The Villager, Albert Amateau wrote: “Federal Judge Thomas P. Griesa ruled in August 1985 that state and federal agencies had given tainted testimony about the impact on Hudson River striped bass by the proposed landfill between Battery Park City and 30th St. and the project was officially dropped in September (1985).”
Between the mid-80s and the early 2000s, Andrew Berman wrote:
The impact of the new construction on the Far West Village was breathtaking. Older buildings that reflected the history and maintained the scale of the neighborhood were demolished, instead of being preserved through adaptive reuse as was done before. New buildings often had huge setback towers, large expanses of glass and projecting balconies, rather than character or scale matching the neighborhood. These were in many ways the antithesis of the otherwise earthy, modestly scaled neighborhood in which they were located. The unique look, scale and history of the Far West Village, maintained so well for so long, began to come undone. To many, the Meier-designed sheer-glass-and-steel towers on Perry St. represent the apogee of this unfortunate, neighborhood-destroying trend.
The ill effects of this unchecked development on our neighborhood have been great.
We like to think that the holiday card was what really made the difference in achieving the Mayor’s support for zoning protections and historic designation for the Far West Village. It was probably also the thousands of letters, postcards, and emails to the City, the endorsements from citywide and statewide preservation groups and local elected officials, and the support from property owners and local electeds.
And so it was that on May 2, 2006, two new historic districts were designated in the Far West Village, the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension and the Weehawken Street Historic District. Just prior to that, on October 11, 2005, the city approved zoning protections for the area proposed by GVSHP.
The unique partnership of the Department of City Planning and the Landmarks Preservation Commission fulfills the mayor’s commitment made at last year’s town hall meeting at PS 41. The proposal is also consistent with the mayor’s promise to protect the character of the city’s lower and medium density residential neighborhoods to offer the variety of housing choices that is critical to the city’s future…
In response to requests by community groups, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Department of City Planning has developed this zoning proposal for contextual districts to ensure that new development is consistent with the predominant built form and land uses in the Far West Village.
Now, as we enjoy the holiday season – and an intact Far West Village – our efforts to secure and keep zoning protections and landmarking in all of our neighborhoods continue, as we fight to landmark Federal houses on Bowery and East Broadway, pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, and notably resist our current Mayor’s “Silicon Alley,” protecting and zoning 14th to 8th Street, 5th to 3rd Avenues.
Mr. Mayor – Season’s Greetings. All We Want for the Holidays is to Save Our Neighborhood!