Saturday, August 1, 2009

555 Hudson Street

One of the most charming sections of New York City is the West Village, especially as you walk along the North-South streets of Hudson, Greenwich, and Washington, which feel like a small town but also quicken with the energy and variety of the big city. It is worth remembering, though, that without the herculean efforts of an unassuming free-lance writer named Jane Jacobs, this whole neighborhood would most likely have been demolished years ago. In addition to being the author of the still-in-print Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which changed forever how planners understood urban development, Jacobs organized relentlessly to limit automobile traffic in the city and to maximize the place of small scale neighborhoods like the West Village. The long and enervating struggle to accomplish this, never more than a partial victory, pitted Jacobs against New York’s great Power Broker and urban planner Robert Moses.

For decades, Moses, who, like Robert McNamara, was obsessed with making systems work, regardless of the damage they might do, had always wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square Park, which was and still is, the center of Greenwich Village communal life. Moses knew this plan would destroy the Park’s main appeal as a gathering place for residents, but traffic flow was Moses’s main concern, not how people related to each other. Time and again his efforts were thwarted, but it was Jacobs and her team of organizers who finally defeated him for good in the late 1950s.

Much to her surprise, as Jason Epstein points out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Jacobs was submitting her manuscript for Death and Life to Epstein, her publisher, at about the same time that she learned Moses and his henchmen had decided to turn their attention to a new project that would have an even more direct impact on her. What Moses envisioned was a major new highway that would have cut through the heart of the West Village, and bulldozed Jacobs’ very own house at 555 Hudson Street into oblivion. It didn’t happen. But the fight to defeat this project took nine years and left her weary and disillusioned and unsure whether she wanted to remain in Manhattan. Moreover, she despised the Vietnam War, which was then raging, and refused to allow her two sons to be drafted. She moved to Toronto in 1968 and never lived in New York again.

It is humbling and instructive to return to the site of Jane Jacobs’ West Village home – 555 Hudson Street – the structure that was almost destroyed by Robert Moses’s bulldozers. When I stopped by the other day, I wondered if it looked the same as it did in 1961. Three simple storeys of red brick on the same corner as the White Horse Tavern, which still thrives (and where it is said Dylan Thomas regaled the customers with stories and, unfortunately, also drank himself to death), and now surrounded (as perhaps it was then) by a variety of little shops, cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores. When Jacobs lived there, I think she resided in the two upper floors, while a candy store occupied the ground floor. Today, the whole building is vacant and the asking price is 3.5 million dollars! It is a lovely, inviting area. But it is also a bit ironic that owing to crusaders like Jacobs who worked tirelessly to retain the small scale of New York neighborhoods in all their diversity, that the demand for housing has grown so high now only the wealthy can afford to live there. Residents who know something about the history of their neighborhoods must be grateful to Jacobs for having saved such fine places, but must wonder, too, about their sustainability, with everyone but a tiny elite priced out of the market. Will the absence of the very diversity that Jacobs most admired and worked hardest to preserve prevent such neighborhoods from continuing to flourish in the future?


  1. small correction, it should be Jason Epstein, not Jacob

  2. Absolutely! Thank you, Sara, very much.