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Growing up Alongside the West Village Waterfront of the 1990s

I moved to the West Village, all the way west, tucked between the Meatpacking District and the Hudson River, in 1991 at the age of four. My family first lived on Barrow Street and then Bank Street, both between Washington and West Streets, and both within the West Village Houses complex.

West Village Houses along west side of Washington Street looking north from Charles Street with Westbeth in background. All images in this post are from the new John T. Krawchuk Collection in Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.
West Street side of Gansevoort Market Meat Center btw. Little West 12th and Gansevoort Streets.
401 West 14th Street, former location of the “Western Beef” warehouse-style supermarket.

When you hear the phrase “West Village,” are these the sorts of views that initially come to mind? In my experience, mentioning that I grew up in the West Village causes people to make certain assumptions. They conjure images of picturesque red brick row houses, brownstone stoops, cute cafes with apartments above them — all part of the West Village experience, certainly, especially once one crosses Washington Street into the Greenwich Village Historic District — but the neighborhood is so much more layered than that.

Looking west on north side of Charles Street from Washington Street, with (r. to l.) 159, 161, and 163 Charles Street, and the Pathfinder Warehouse with mural (latter two demolished).

And so I was especially excited when Village Preservation received this stunning collection of images from John T. Krawchuk, who photodocumented the Meatpacking District, Far West Village, and Hudson River waterfront in the early 1990s as part of his Columbia University graduate thesis in Historic Preservation, completed in 1995. The full thesis, entitled “On Edge: The West Village Waterfront”, can be viewed here.

Looking east across 14th Street from West Street with High Line.

Krawchuk’s photo archive depicts a gritty neighborhood in transition. In the early ‘90s, the Meatpacking District still smelled distinctly of, well, meat. I have visceral memories of taking yellow cabs home from Penn Station, and as the driver would make a right turn from 9th Avenue, heading west on 14th Street, I’d see (and smell) carcasses hanging from the metal canopies over warehouses abutting the then-abandoned High Line, while being jostled in the back seat by the taxi rumbling along cobblestones.

High Line emerging from 450 West 14th Street, just east of 10th Avenue.
Belgian Block paving stones (cobblestones) and manhole covers at intersection of Gansevoort and Greenwich Streets and Ninth Avenue, looking southeast.

During those years, my mother only had two hard-and-fast rules for her daughters, young New Yorkers-in-training. The first was, “never step on a plastic bag on the sidewalk” (because you don’t know what could be hiding underneath), and the second, “never cross West Street.” To the west of West Street lay the West Side Highway and the biking/walking path beyond. Today, it is part of the lovely Hudson River Park, and the water’s edge is replete with fresh benches and bespoke lighting. In the ‘90s, things were a bit more rundown.

West Street between Christopher (r.) and 10th Streets. (Perhaps containing clues as to why this author was not allowed to spend time here as a teenager.)
Looking north along West St. and waterfront from approx. Perry St.; with Gansevoort Destructor Plant (l.) and Westbeth (r.).

But the neighborhood’s beauty was also found in its transitional grittiness. Westbeth stood tall as an example of the successes that adaptive reuse can provide, and remains a haven for artists who likely would have otherwise been pushed out of an area where creatives once thrived. I had no idea at the time that Roy Lichtenstein was living across the street from my family’s apartment, or that Jane Jacobs had championed the very housing that made it possible for me and so many others to grow up in this special place.

Westbeth as viewed from Washington and Bank Streets, with former High Line rail bed running through. West Village Houses on the left (red brick building), and Roy Lichtenstein’s home and studio out of frame to the right.

Some of the photographs in this collection seem to almost illustrate change as it is happening. In the below image, squint and you can just about envision today’s replenished High Line; many buildings in the background remain, while the two buildings in the foreground have since been demolished.

Looking east across West Street and 10th Avenue at West 13th Street with High Line; foreground buildings on both sides of 13th St. have been demolished.

So much of the neighborhood has changed drastically in the intervening years, yet this unique part of the Village, outside the bounds of the Greenwich Village Historic District, has managed to hold on to some of its tangible history nonetheless. In 2003, Village Preservation secured landmark status for the Gansevoort Market Historic District, which ensured protections for that portion of the neighborhood just as it was rapidly gentrifying and changing, and over the next several years did the same for more blocks and buildings in the Far West Village, including Westbeth. Krawchuk’s images provide a record of the neighborhood at a pivotal time in its history.

Looking east to the north side of Gansevoort Street from Washington Street. Click here to see the same view today… many of the buildings remain, and while the structure in the background now has a raised parapet and roof, the “Burnham’s” painted ghost sign is still partially visible.

All images in this post are from “The John T. Krawchuk Collection: The West Village Waterfront in the Early 1990s.” Click here to view the entirety of the captivating collection.

One response to “Growing up Alongside the West Village Waterfront of the 1990s

  1. Dana, what a treat to read your so beautifully shared memories of living in this West Village area as a child. Your post, matched with selected photos from the Krawchuck collection, really brought the area and time to life. How wonderful that the Krawchuck collection is one of the now available to people in Village Preservation’s vast archive.

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