A bohemian paradise, there was something charmed about the neighborhood that inspired talent. Geniuses such as James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Kahlil Gibran, Edna St Vincent Millay, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain all lived here and many more. This area was called the “Village” because of its low-rise character and small winding tree-lined streets. Plaques on buildings state the great artists who once lived there. Its bars and coffee houses are famous for the legendary personalities who frequented them. Those days are over.
As the city became more and more populated developers began converting the warehouses in the area west of Greenwich Village into living spaces. For instance, located in what is now called the West Village, my apartment, a converted loft, used to be a tea warehouse. I have been here for thirty eight years but knew the area long before as my father’s family lived here. My grandfather was born on Thompson Street at the turn of the nineteenth century and although my family has since moved uptown, as an artist I was drawn back here. I also wanted my son, a future artist himself, to attend the progressive village grammar school, PS 3.
Life was wonderful here but even stalwart icons change. Now tall modern glass buildings have sprung up all over and our waterfront is walled off to the rest of the area. Even with the dedicated work of groups such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, this area is no longer so low-rise and only very successful artists can afford to live here. To help understand how these changes impact our community and its sustainability, I interviewed four of my neighbors. Each one had been drawn to this neighborhood for the freedoms it afforded and to be in the vanguard of artistic, cultural and political thought.
Arlen, a 66 year old retired teacher and singer who has lived here since 1975, fears that the waterfront will “become like north Miami.” He is also upset that the “chain stores replaced the mom and pop stores.” Unfortunately for the character of the area, big chain stores are the only shops that can afford the high rents here. Diana, a 64 year old musician, who has lived in her building for the past 35 years, agrees “it is very sad that the changes are making the Village become like any mall in the USA.”
The Village was noted for its unusual restaurants and curio shops but that all changed after the Koch administration vetoed commercial rent regulations for the popular neighborhood. “All but 3 of the 15 panel members, named by Mr. Koch and the City Council 13 months ago, concluded in a report to be released today that rent controls for small retail businesses were unnecessary.” (2) Consequently, commercial landlords can leave shops empty for years until they get the high rent that they want and not lose money. This not only artificially raised commercial rents but it also is responsible for the loss of our unique shops. Many shops had been here for generations but could not afford the doubling and tripling of their rent. Healthy restaurants, which use food from sustainable based farms and tend to be reasonably priced, cannot afford the high rents so there are few here. Unless you cook for yourself, you must leave the neighborhood for an organic meal.
Even mundane shops necessary for the commonplace essentials of city living such as self-service laundry mats are no longer here. One must leave the neighborhood to do their laundry (not practical if one has a lot of laundry to carry and must take a subway.) Paula, a 70 year old building superintendent who was born in Chelsea and has lived in the West Village since 1968, complained “I had to get a car so I could go to Brooklyn to shop as I can’t afford to shop here and there is no longer anywhere in the neighborhood to do my laundry!” She and a friend are sharing the car since she, a city dweller all her life, never learned how to drive. This is her first car.
Because coops provide financial opportunities, the bankers, Wall Street traders and lawyers, whose main interest in life is money, moved into village coops in droves. Paula, mourning the loss of the character of our neighborhood explains “This used to be a working class neighborhood but now the “one percent” lives here.” “All they care about is making money.” Our hospital, the only one for downtown Manhattan, was closed in order to build even more luxury housing. People are dying because ambulances take so long to get to the east side or uptown hospitals. Coops helped take the “neighbor” out of neighborhood.
Diana feels proud of the Village’s “diversity of ideas and uniqueness” but adds “less so lately.” She is upset about her building going coop and complains “My building used to be like a family. It is very cold now.” “Creative people aren’t here anymore!” Michael, a 70 year old musician and singer who has lived here since 1971, is upset with the “a__holes” who clog up the sidewalks with “their technology (texting), the greedy landlords and Nuevo riche.” He exclaims “The world is going to hell in a basket!”
Because of recent traumas, our neighborhood thinks about disaster in a much more realistic fashion. Being so close to the World Trade Center, the Village was traumatized by 911. So much smoke was coming into my 8th floor apartment that I wore a mask at home so I decided to leave. I had to walk out of the neighborhood with my 3 dogs tied to a shopping cart with suitcase and dog food, as no traffic was allowed below 14th Street. Then in 2012, hurricane Sandy flooded our low lying area causing us to lose electricity and most of the comforts and conveniences of modern city living. For days we were cut off from the rest of the world.
Paula worries about the infrastructure of the neighborhood and “What if two “Sandies’ hit us back-to-back?” Arlen feels that it is “up to the individual” as far as food security but only has canned soup in case of another disaster. Diana, a long time vegan who eats a lot of raw food, worries that although she has enough food for her pets in case of another disaster, she will not have food for herself. “I remember during the blackout, people emptied the shelves.” Michael is frightened of the future. “I live in fear and always keep a lot of canned goods on hand.” Every January first he thinks “OMG, what is going to happen this year?”
When asked about recycling and sustainability Michael says “Why should I worry about recycling when the presidents are blowing up the world? Is my little recycling going to help?” He feels that recycling makes people feel good but that they “won’t walk to work,” for instance, or “give up their technology” in order to help sustainability. “The rich bitches and trust fund babies won’t give up anything.” To Diana sustainability means “self-supporting, to continue and replenish.” But, when asked about sustainability, Paula exclaims “What sustainability? No one cares! Everything is so crazy!”
My coop is installing new airtight windows. Whether they are doing this to save money on fuel or for conservation doesn’t matter. To further aid sustainability habits, I believe it would encourage people to recycle at home more if there were public recycling alongside garbage cans. And, I cannot understand why our building puts flattened cardboard boxes in plastic bags for recycling pickups. We are not the only building that does this, many do. It is also a common practice to hose the sidewalks down in the summer and clean the leaves off the sidewalks with a leaf blower in the fall. Not only do these methods of cleaning the sidewalks waste water and fuel, the leaf blower is incredibly loud! It would be more sustainably correct to just sweep the sidewalks.
Right now the streets are colored white because of the huge amount of salt the city continues to apply, even though we only had a dusting of snow last night. The Parks Department puts so much salt on sidewalks bordering parks that it is 1’ thick in places. So much salt must kill our precious flora and fauna. On a positive note, the city has installed more bike hitches for people who own bikes and instituted a citywide bike share program which has been a success.
It kept its’ character for over one hundred years but the village that we loved is over. Hopefully, as we continue to ignore the destruction of our environment, in the next age, thousands of years from now, there will be another village on this land. I have no doubt that it will also be ahead of its time, as something here stirs the creative.
2. Purnick, Joyce. (1986, June 5). Koch Panel Opposes Commercial Rent Control. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1986/06/05/nyregion/koch-panel-opposes-commercial-rent-control.html
One-man show. Dylan hangs out on top of a NYC roof in 1962. 3.3.2014,http://www.biography.com/people/bob-dylan-9283052/photos/bob-dylan
Meir Towers, NYC Architecture, Photo, 3.3.14, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/CHE/CHE030-PerryWest.htm
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation photo, 3.3.14, http://www.gvshp.org/fwvaprilrally.htm