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Oral History Highlight: Colette Smith Douglas

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.

Colette Smith Douglas, born November 19, 1926, lived in MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens in the 1950s. Hers is a classic story of mid-century Village life — from attending Little Red Schoolhouse as a child, to supporting her husband Paul Wolff’s fight against Robert Moses’ proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed the neighborhoods of SoHo, Little Italy, and the South Village. Presently she lives on Charlton Street.

According to Douglas: I was born in France, in Normandy, because my mother was French, and when she was having a baby she’d go back to be near her mother. And my parents met in World War I. My father was an ambulance driver with the Harvard Unit attached to the French Army. And then when America joined, he was with the United States Army

Following Douglas’s birth, and in the spirit of a truly international family, her parents re-patriated to the Village, though they would move easily back and forth between France and New York many times. They took up residence at 74 MacDougal Street at a time when MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens was home to well-educated, middle-class families. The family had a maid, a janitor shoveled coal into the building’s furnace, the kitchen had an icebox, and the milkman delivered heavy glass bottles of milk. She remembers the likes of neighbors over the years including Richard Gere, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan — an eclectic group of residents in such a small area. 

MacDougal Street

During the Great Depression, Douglas remembers people living in orange crates on Houston Street, just south of her block on MacDougal Street. The family could no longer afford their maid, and rations were introduced. Douglas mentions little crimes that took place, a result of a lack of economic security.

“Another Depression memory was one fall when we came back from France, my father had come to get us in his car. And I guess he was unloading the suitcases, and this man stopped and said, “May I help you?” And my father said, “Sure.” And he was a guy without work, in a tattered suit, but good manners and whatnot. So my dad said, “I’d like to help you.” I’ll never forget this. So he brought him in. He let him take a bath. Gave him a suit, and maybe gave him some money, I don’t know. But he said, “Let me know how you make out.” Well, we never heard from him. But that stuck in my mind.” 

But it wasn’t all so bleak; Douglas remembers the double-decker buses, the Christmas carols, Santa Claus sleigh rides, nativity scenes in the neighborhood, and the organ grinder with a pet monkey. She remembers the Village institutions we still know and love, surviving and creating community and warmth as they do even now: Raffetto’s on Houston, the Greenwich House, and of course her beloved school, the Little Red School House on Bleecker Street.

A double-decker bus on Fifth Avenue in 1946. Similar vehicles are now used for sightseeing. Image from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Douglas’s time at the Little Red School House was transformative, as the place where she learned to read, learned to sing labor songs, played on the iconic roof at recess, and went on countless field trips. It was a place where she met and befriended a truly diverse group of classmates — the children of painters, lawyers, advertising professionals, and more. Douglas describes a sort of feeling that wasn’t taught but that permeated the space: “It’s hard to describe because it was not anybody lecturing anything in particular, it was just a feeling that, you know, good feelings, being nice to people, and be tolerant. All the good stuff.” 

The Little Red Schoolhouse in 1923

After her time at LREI, Douglas went on to the Todd Hunter School uptown, and then later to a boarding school in Connecticut and to college at Vassar, from which she graduated in 1946. After college Douglas moved back to France, where she worked at the American Embassy, which is where she married her husband. They returned to the States and settled on Charlton Street in The Village. About their home, Douglas said: 

 “So we came back [from France], and I remember we looked for a place to live in the suburbs. Too depressing. So then one day I was looking around in the Village with an agent, and he said, “Well, there’s a house on Charlton Street. The people are leaving. Maybe you can rent it.” So we rented this, falling apart but wonderful. And before we renovated it, we rented the top floor for more than we were paying for the whole house. Can you imagine? I think it was like $160 a month.”

Douglas had four children who attended Grace Church School, and it was during this time that her husband, who was at one time the Chair of Community Board 2, was a part of the fight to stop the Downtown Expressway from being built. Of this time, she said: “I like to think he was a great help in stopping the downtown expressway. Which would have been a disaster, because some of the approach roads would have come almost as far as here… he was head of the Planning Board for a while… And it was what’s his name, the famous… Robert Moses, pushing for it. Well, you see what it did to the Cross Bronx [Expressway]. Absolutely killed those neighborhoods. And I admit Canal Street is a disaster, but it would have just substituted one disaster for another. And look what’s happened since that got stopped—that whole SoHo has developed. Made a lot of people happy.” 

Greenwich Village residents protest against Robert Moses’s plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway in 1960.

Douglas’s Oral History is rich with small memories, from details about shopping at Washington Square Village and Raffetto’s to throwing pots in the Greenwich House ceramics studio, and so much more. 

This is one of over 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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