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Opinion
Letter from New York

Leonard Quart: The state of Greenwich Village in 2022

I have recently been thinking about the current state of Greenwich Village, where my wife and I have chosen to live for more than 50 years. It has been a long time to live in one place, and we have witnessed many changes over the years from what was then at first a reasonably priced neighborhood that had kept a lot of its historic allure.

But I also remember living through the gritty 1970s when crime was rife, and some of today’s gentrified Village blocks were permeated with drug dealers in alleys, under scaffolds and on stoops making us conscious that walking the night streets could often be precarious. There wasn’t much gentrification or building then, as the city’s population dipped an incredible 10 percent from 1970 to 1980, to just above 7 million, and apartments were relatively inexpensive, as demand for them was scant. In 1972, there were over 1,600 murders as the city was teetering on bankruptcy, and anomie (e.g., graffiti-dominated trains and neighborhoods filled with burnt-out buildings) seemed to be everywhere. It was a very painful time, and we spent close to three years of that period on leaves and sabbaticals away from New York in London.

From the 1990s on, the Village gradually became more affluent and gentrified until the pandemic hit in 2020. It resulted in a Village with many stores for rent, homeless encampments on a few streets, and significant increases in crime, with the West Village recently showing an 84 percent spike in major crime rates when compared to 2021’s year-to-date numbers. It has led to residents and business owners being fed up with the surfeit of shoplifters that include vagrants, small-time thieves and even families. Drug stores have been especially hard hit, and they lock up much of what they sell behind glass, with some going out of business. I have not touched on other Village problems, like noise, traffic congestion, homelessness and the absence of a neighborhood hospital to replace the closing of St. Vincent’s.

Still, it’s the Village, where hundreds of people turned out on May 1, calling for a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers. On May 5, I witnessed another mainly student march against the Supreme Court’s leaked draft decision on abortion rights. And I know many more protest marches will follow. Despite the pandemic, the area’s great repertory and art movie theaters have survived, and so has the essential Public Theater that is starting to present plays in its many venues. Many small stores have closed, but unique ones, like Rocco’s, a pastry shop, and Ottomanelli’s meat market, both on Bleecker Street, have survived, as well as a number of the Village’s best cafes and restaurants like Cafe Lafayette on Lafayette Street. The Village also provides two excellent public schools: PS 41 and PS 3.

The Village’s prime problems are providing affordable housing and preventing developers from turning charming and architecturally varied streets into sterile office buildings and luxury glass towers. News items of developers turning the Village into an island of the super-rich often appear in local papers and online in Crain’s New York Business. For example, Zeckendorf Development just teamed up with Atlas Capital Group to buy 570 Washington Street — an empty 1.3-acre space between Houston and Clarkson streets along the West Side Highway — to build a luxury tower where apartments will be priced around $5,000 per square foot. The luxury tower will also be a quick walk from where Google plans to put its $2.1 billion terminal. In addition, an investment firm bought 11 buildings up and down Patchin Place, a remarkably unchanged, gated cul-de-sac, lined by three-story townhouses in Greenwich Village. Built in the 1840s, its notable past residents have included E.E. Cummings, Theodore Dreiser and Marlon Brando. What it may turn into has not yet been defined, but I fear its charm will be lost.

To get a clearer portrait of Village housing problems, I spoke to Andrew Berman, who since 2002 has headed the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Berman has been the major force for preserving affordable and landmark housing and fighting off developers over the last two decades. He understands that, “since the early 19th century when it allowed the new street grid to be imposed upon it, Greenwich Village has been engaged in a fight for its existence. Government, big real estate, and powerful institutions continue to see the neighborhood as ripe for the picking in terms of oversized development that would destroy its history and character.”

Berman has continued to fight those forces that advocate monstrous development along with a carrot of a small amount of affordable housing, the latter usually turning out to be an illusion anyway. In certain parts of the neighborhood, like the area south of Union Square, and the Meatpacking District, the city is also encouraging large-scale office development designed to turn the neighborhood into “Midtown South.” And large institutions like New York University have left us with grotesque giant developments like the multipurpose “Zipper Building” a few blocks from where I live — despite the opposition of very active neighborhood groups.

Berman praises the fact that Landmark protections have been expanded at the instigation of his and other groups, but sees the city as “becoming lax in its enforcement.” He also views “affordability” as one of the Village’s greatest challenges; there do remain hundreds of rent-regulated units, though fewer each year. There are also a very limited number of affordable housing developments in the Village, including Westbeth (it provides artist housing) and one on LaGuardia Place — both with immense waiting lists. The Village will survive its problems, but the need to preserve a facsimile of its legendary bohemian, artistic and intellectual past is imperative, and turning its streets into an island of money will ultimately mean the dilution and disappearance of what’s left of its soul.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com.

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