Fog's rollin' in off the East River bank
Like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street
Fills the alleys where men sleep
Hides the shepherd from the sheep
- Paul Simon, Bleecker Street
by Greg Saville
Walking through Greenwich Village in New York City, as I did last week, is like walking through American history. It reminded me of Simon and Garfunkle's 1960s song Bleecker Street, a nostalgic ode partly about a neighborhood New Yorkers call ‘The Village'.
Greenwich Village is the place of America’s first integrated nightclub with Billy Holiday and where Edgar Allan Poe wrote poetry. It’s the neighborhood where Albert Einstein, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charlie Chaplin sat for sculptor Jo Davidson, and where Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg started the Beat Movement. Bob Dylan started here. Jewish intellectuals fled Nazi Germany to the Greenwich Village campus of the New School for Social Research.
Breathing life into the neighborhood is Washington Square Park, the nexus of public life in The Village. Fifty-seven years ago another Greenwich Village luminary, Jane Jacobs, published her landmark text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she wrote about the attempted destruction of Washington Square Park.
SLICING WITH AN EXPRESSWAY
In 1961 Washington Square Park was to be cut in half by an expressway and a pedestrian overpass, diced into slices by Robert Moses, former NYC Parks Commissioner. Moses was a leader in the modernist movement of city planning and, more than others, he led an urban renewal revolution to build expressways and expand growth into suburbs.
On one hand, Moses built hundreds of city parks and public swimming pools, but on the other he divided neighborhoods with an orgy of expressway building. In the late 1950s, Washington Square Park, the lifeblood of Greenwich Village, was next in line; that is until Jacobs and her fellow Greenwich neighbors mobilized public support against the plan.
It’s difficult to imagine the decimation of Greenwich Village, the heritage it entailed, and the history it enshrined if Moses had been able to plow a wide expressway through the beating heart of that park. In many ways, Jacobs and others launched a crusade against Moses and modernist planning theory. Fortunately for us, she succeeded.
A half-century after those battles, a stroll through this iconic Greenwich Village park offers tangible proof how, at least in this case, local efforts and bottom-up thinking blew away the master planning fog of some top-down schemers.