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Michael E. Levine Oral History: How the Greenwich Village Historic District, SoHo, and Stonewall Happened

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

Michael E. Levine is an urban planner who worked as the NYC Department of City Planning’s Community Board #2 (Greenwich Village, SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy, Hudson Square) liaison beginning in the 1960s, and was intimately involved in the landmark designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District as well as pioneering zoning and landmark designations for SoHo. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a resident of Greenwich Village since 1967, Levine participated in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, and has been involved in many aspects of community affairs and planning in Lower Manhattan for over fifty years.

Michael Levine grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, and lived there with his Jewish family until 1967, when he moved to Greenwich Village in his last year of graduate school at Hunter College. He was drawn to Greenwich Village, to the openness and community of its streets and parks, and to its gay scene, in particular the Stonewall Inn. Levine was at Stonewall on the night of the raid in 1969, which became a days-long rebellion, and recounts the scene in the streets each night, as well as the event’s immediate and long-term effects within and without the LGBTQ community. Levine tracks the legacy of Stonewall in his life, from visibility and acceptance in his workplace to the creation and life of his spiritual community at Congregation Simchat Torah (CBST), New York’s first LGBTQ synagogue. CBST was founded in 1973, and Levine joined in 1974. Levine said: “I’ve been an active member of that congregation ever since. And I trace all of this back to Stonewall. And I say all of this has been possible to happen because of Stonewall.” 

Agroup of young poeple outside the boarded-up Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher Street) after riots over the weekend of June 27, 1969. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah)

Preserving 1960s and ‘70s Greenwich Villge 

Of his early work in Greenwich Village, Levine said: 

“Following the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, it was probably one of the most productive times I can ever think for a young man fresh out of college, and I was there at that time. And the reason it happened was because of my great love for Greenwich Village, and my familiarity with Greenwich Village before I came to the job. When I look back at it, I say yes, I know I’ve done a lot of things since then, but that was probably one of the most fun parts of my creative career. Some of the things I did in Greenwich Village, like on 8th Street, and of course working on the Greenwich Village Historic District designation, and the M1-5 designation of SoHo as a joint living/work ordinance district for artists, and the ability to have it designated as the Cast Iron Historic District. Those are really great highlights to look back on fifty years ago.” 

The Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969

Levine earned a graduate degree in urban planning and was hired at the Department of City Planning, where he was assigned to work with Manhattan Community Board 2. In this role, he approved and recommended to the City Planning Commission the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, which was established by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969.

Working closely with Doris Diether, Ruth Wittenberg, and Verna Small, Levine also reviewed plans related to other community issues within Community Board 2, including the rezoning of SoHo to accommodate residential use of industrial buildings. Known at the time as a disused industrial area, many artists were living in their studios in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo. Levine recounts mounting a neighborhood-wide survey of SoHo, with the support of the SoHo Artists Association, that led to the rezoning that enabled artists to remain in the neighborhood. “It was a slow process in which I gained the confidence of many, many of the artists because they began to know this young man is walking the streets and he’s trying to help us,” he said. 

Levine also explains how the adjustment to the zoning was additionally a critical step on the path to the creation of the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District, as well as to the later establishment of the city-wide Loft Law. Levine loved SoHo, and spoke movingly about it: 

Of course, the sun didn’t reach very many of the streets during the day because the cast-iron buildings could be pretty tall. So it was in some ways dark and gloomy, but I found a fascination as I looked at these buildings, and said, despite what I’m seeing on the streets right now, there are original authentic cobblestones there. There are sidewalks that go back a hundred years. There are buildings that go back a hundred years. It’s dirty and it’s gritty, and we have to save it. That’s what SoHo is.”

SoHo Cast Iron Historic District

After working for the Department of City Planning on various issues throughout Manhattan, as well as working for the New York chapter of the American Planning Association and teaching at Pace University, Levine retired and returned to Manhattan Community Board 2, where he contributes as a long-time resident of Greenwich Village. He recounts the new issues Community Board 2 faces in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as evergreen preservation and quality of life concerns that he was introduced to during his first involvement with the Board in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Looking forward from the panedmic, Levine says: 

There is an estimate that after the pandemic is over; twenty-five percent of our small businesses will never come back. We need to keep them alive. That’s one of the primary things we’re doing. Our transportation committee has been working very, very hard with the City of New York to open streets––the Open Streets project––to be closing those streets to traffic at certain times to allow people to social distance if they want to come out on a Sunday to walk… And our education committee has been working very, very hard on resolutions to try and figure out how to deal with the prospect of whether or not the schools will be opening or not opening… These are kind of the major issues that we’re focusing on right now. There are other issues too. There are issues related to the cuts in the city budget. The city budget, the state budget, everything is being cut… We can expect to see a lot of this occurring throughout the pandemic and we don’t know how long it will take to recover from it.

Click here to read the full transcript or here to listen to the oral history.

This is one of nearly 60 oral histories we’ve conducted which you can find in our collection, with prominent preservationists, activists, planners, artists, community, and business leaders. Some others you can find include Jane Jacobs, Rick Kelly, Mimi Sheraton, Ralph Lee, Fred Bass, Peter Ruta, Richard Meier, Merce Cunningham, Matt Umanov, David Amram, Verna Small, Marlis Mober, Jonas Mekas, Margot Gayle, Wolf Kahn, Lorcan Otway, Frances Goldin, Chino Garcia, Penny Arcade, and James Polshek, among many others.  Explore them all HERE

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