Lynn P: The Once and Future Village

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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.

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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.

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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.

1.    http://rightherenyc.com/THEYLIVEDHERE_writers.html

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

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4 thoughts on “Lynn P: The Once and Future Village

  1. tessalou

    Hi Lynn,
    I didn’t realize that we had so much in common. That is that we are both life long residents of once wonderful and unique, artist neighborhoods in downtown NYC, and at least 3rd generation New Yorkers, as well as both artists ourselves. I too live in a converted loft, that was a working factory until my family moved in some 36 years ago. Funny, the new residents in my building, a co-op from the beginning, while being a different “breed” (too some extent, some are successful creatives) are much less stressed out than the funkier old “breed” of resident. I mean that the fighting and insanity that used to happen at say a board meeting, does not anymore. I guess they just have so much more money or something, their stresses are different. We have some other original residents still here as well! Also our building is about half queer, half not (as far as I know, at least).
    Well obviously Chelsea and the West Village have many parallels in their souls and their re-centering of values. I too feel the heart braking strain of the influx of wealth and chain stores, but feel that some soul remains.
    I wonder about those citi- bike shares and all the lanes. While I do see how wonderful it is in some ways I wonder about the environmental impact of the build up of traffic that tightening of streets by them, has created. Are there extra fuel admissions on those blocks now? For example on 17 th st., residents were up in arms when the new school that was being built there, created a situation where school busses would be idling for long periods of time on the block. Anyway, I don’t know if this is an issue with the bikes, but I was just thinking about it and I am not saying they are not a positive step. There are just always many issues involved with each choice and I believe it is important to consider all sides to really back up our own beliefs, if nothing else.
    Great meeting you!
    Tessa Lou

    Reply
    1. Lynn Pacifico

      It was great to meet you too. Our residency was an informative & fun experience and it was interesting to realize that so many of us are concerned with the same issues no matter that we live in entirely different communities.
      Lucky for you that your coop board has worked itself out. My building has approx. 150 apartments and it seems as though the people who desire power over others are the ones who want to hold office on the board. The rest of the building’s shareholders do not want to be involved with the people on the board and do not want to run for the board them self, so here we are. I am not even allowed to attend shareholder meetings as I do not own my apt.

      I believe that the Citibike bike share program is still working out the glitches involved in installing so many bikes and bike stations in an already crowded city. But overall it is working and as the city adds more bike lanes, NY will become more bike friendly like cities in other countries. That will be a big win for sustainability as more drivers will learn to leave their car behind or parked if they want to get around the city quickly.

      Manhattan has a congestion problem which is why Bloomberg attempted to charge driver for driving into the center of the city. This has been done in other countries already, like Singapore. For instance, Herald Sq. at 34th St. made pedestrian walkways carved out of the streets (this is now common in pedestrian crowded areas.) I go there often to buy supplies and still find it difficult to navigate, esp. during rush hour. Something has got to give and I guess it is the car drivers!

      I look forward to bumping into you in the future as our nabes are next to each other. We have already probably stood next to each other on line somewhere! Bye for now, Lynn

      Reply
  2. violetvague

    Lynn,
    Thanks for such a great description of your neighborhood. While your living experiences are very different from mine with regard to structure and neighborhood character, it seems as though we are experiencing similar dynamics in our communities. The growth based economy we have read about in our text and discussed during the residency greatly affect the gap between the haves and have-nots. It seems as though the only way to grow profits is to exploit the rest of our population, as well as the environment. You have listed ways in which this happens in your community, the shift in businesses and restaurants from being locally owned to corporate ownership. These businesses have little invested in the infrastructure and environment in local communities and any income taken in goes to support corporate shareholders, not the local economy. We have seen a similar dynamic occur. Chain stores such as the Gap and Eddie Bauer have replaced small privately owned shops that were successful until property values skyrocketed and rents were tripled in a matter of weeks. I think that our work as citizen journalists is cut out for us. We need to keep reminding readers that we can take our communities back by not supporting abusive business practices. Finding ways to be successful in this effort is a challenge, but shopping local businesses (when available), embracing second hand culture – which I know you do, and reducing consumption are possible solutions.

    Lisa Kosek

    Reply
  3. Spencer Oakes Dawson

    Lynn,
    I love the Village. Any and all parts of it.
    I knew from walking it about how some streets have new buildings and look completely different than they used to. I am also a history buff so I know a great deal about how the city used to look, and thus why I love being in the village. The crisscrossing streets….It’s simply beautiful.
    What boggles my mind is the way that rents skyrocket!
    It’s very different from my hometown in upstate NY. The crash in 2008 hit the town of 5,000 like no other. The house next to my parents just sold for 26K!! Less than what my parents paid for our house back in the 80’s!
    Here in Harlem, it’s vastly different than the Village, but even since I moved in I have seen it change. Just yesterday I saw a sticker on a street side mailbox that said “F**k up Whitey :)” – I hope I don’t have to explain what that means.
    White people who can afford the higher rents are moving in. And the lower income people, blacks and latinos in this case, are moving out. I got lucky enough to be in a rent controlled building, and on the statement each month they post what the market rate is for the apartment and it’s out of this world!

    Reply

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