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Leticia Kent Oral History: Revisiting Her Unique Window on History

On October 8, 1997, we sat down with esteemed freelance journalist and long-time Villager Leticia Kent, for our very first, of what are now, scores of oral histories with great preservationists, artists, activists, and community and business leaders of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. Village Preservation staff and trustees sat down with Kent in preparation for her own pending oral history interview with Jane Jacobs for Village Preservation. Additionally, they spoke with Kent about her work with Jane Jacobs and the preservation battles she led during the 1960s – including opposition to the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway and the creation of artists’ housing in the West Village.

Jane Jacobs wearing a sign that reads ‘Kill the Xpressway Now,’ answers a journalist’s questions, August 23, 1962, from Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive. © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. Our special thanks to the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah for their support of Village Preservation.

Leticia was a known collaborator and pupil of Jane Jacobs, meeting her and husband Robert Jacobs when she was eighteen years old. Jane and Leticia worked together many times, including multiple interviews of Jacobs by Kent for The New York Times and Vogue. Through this familiarity, Leticia was able to recall minute details from the times of Jacobs’ most prominent work. Reflecting on the Committee to Save the West Village, Kent recalls one of the many demonstrations led by Jane to protect the diversity of the fourteen blocks between Hudson Street and the Hudson River:

“During the West Village fight, we all went down to City Hall and we X’d out our glasses in the way they would mark buildings that were going to be demolished. I remember that they said we rioted, but all we did was stand up and say, “For shame.” Then it was amazing, it was so effective and so moving that people who were opposed to saving the West Village were just driven mad”

Fighting against the various urban renewal projects in the West Village, Leticia saw first-hand the work Jacobs was doing to ensure her own home, amongst others, were spared from Robert Moses’ wrecking ball.

The West Village Committee, formerly “The Committee to Save the West Village”

Among Jacobs’ efforts to establish secure protections for the Village, Leticia also reflected on her involvement with the Village Independent Democrats (VID) in fighting Moses’ urban renewal projects during that decade. VID was known for helping to end the Tammany Hall dominance in New York City at the time, which included Greenwich Village Democratic boss Carmine DeSapio and Robert Moses.

Village Independent Democrats Headquarters

Leticia recalls fondly a moment with VID in which she delayed the arrival of Mayor Wagner to the VID office. Aiming to steer the conversation with Mayor Wagner towards saving the West Village, Kent gave his driver circuitous directions to the VID office, leaving time for her to race upstairs and encourage VID members to ask about the landmark designation of the neighborhood upon Wagner’s arrival.

Workers dismantle Arnold Bergier’s studio, the facade of which is painted with the slogans ‘Save the Village’ and ‘Wake Up Mr. Mayor!’
“Demolition of Artist’s Studio,” Greenwich Avenue, May 19, 1960© Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

Stories like these, amongst other interesting personal anecdotes, are found throughout this interview with Leticia Kent. The oral history also shows the connections between the preservation battles of this time and those Village Preservation is leading today.

Read Leticia Kent’s oral history here. You can learn more about our present-day preservation efforts, and even join our movement by taking action here.

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