The Village Under Siege – By What?
Twenty-three years ago, New York Magazine was worried about the Village. And they weren’t the only ones. On August 16, 1993, The Village Under Siege ran on the cover with an accompanying image of the Washington Square Park, unlit and ominous against the bright, glittering lights of downtown’s skyscrapers. The article detailed a rowdy, often criminal, streetlife taking hold in Greenwich Village. Noise pollution, public intoxication, outer-borough visitors – the neighborhood was changing. While the article cites rising crime rates that reinforce some of the hand-wringing, it’s also is fascinating for its account of a neighborhood in flux. Reading today, the story’s mention of “hip-hoppers,” “blasting rap music,” and “boom-box cars” betray an uneasiness some may have felt about the emergence of new cultures in mainstream, often white, society. Although only 23 years ago, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that those quoted are talking about the same neighborhood as the Village today. And yet, many of the strategies and mentalities expressed in the article had a clear influence on the evolution of the neighborhood (and entire city) in the coming years.
The bad old days of the 1970’s were a distant memory in 1993, but still the picture painted by journalist Michael Gross is bleak. Store owners and patrons were fearful of loitering crowds, the streets were cacophonous, unsanitary and unsafe, and drug sales were abundant in Washington Square. In the story, much of the blame is laid at the feet of the NYPD. Residents and city officials felt they weren’t doing enough on the streets. And people felt that New York’s judicial branch wasn’t properly punishing those who were arrested or ticketed. Today’s police across the country are often accused of excessive force, abuse of power, and illegal street stops, so it’s hard to imagine New Yorkers calling for the police to act more. But in fact, the Villagers of 1993 (at least the ones profiled in this piece) seem to have wanted (and needed) exactly that.
Michael Gross and his subjects make many good points about the importance of public safety. Greenwich Village – always vibrant and off-beat, but relatively safe – was beginning to feel out of control. But while reading, I couldn’t help but detect a discomfort with the city’s shifting and melding geography and demography. By 1993, the outer boroughs were not so “outer” anymore. Although hip-hop emerged in the 1970’s, it exploded as a commercial industry in the early 90’s. Talent in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx were bringing hip-hop culture into the mainstream, and bringing that culture to Manhattan. And although, as Robert Ebert put it in 1995, “rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation,” many white folks didn’t see it that way. Adding to their frustration was new technology, which allowed hip-hop enthusiasts of the 1990’s to play their music much louder than Dylan’s unplugged guitar in Washington Square ever could. Culture was moving on, changing, from what Greenwich Village residents were used to. And city officials and law enforcement were caught off guard. Much of the 1990s was spent creating new policies toward street noise, loitering, and other issues that were just beginning to crop up in neighborhoods like the Village. It was new territory for New York and this article is an of-the-moment account of the city grappling with these changes.
So, what’s the upshot in 2016? This story, to me, foretells quite a bit. Perhaps most notably, you can sense in this article the emergence of “quality of life” issues that became so pervasive in 1990’s New York City. Some residents in the story felt that Greenwich Village deserved better. Community groups were formed and city officials created policy to create changes people demanded. Many of these policies helped to create safer and more livable streets. At their worst, quality of life tactics could be palliative or drastic in their cleaning sweeps. Many people today lament the loss of gritty street culture in the Village and other downtown areas – but this article is proof that some residents in the thick of it weren’t feeling at all sentimental or proud of their gritty neighborhood.
Issues like those described in the story can certainly help to unite residents behind shared visions and goals. The 8th Street corridor is described as an especially frightening place at sundown – thick, metal gates cover every storefront and block all ambient light to the sidewalk. New York has since solved that problem; a 2009 bill prohibited the new installation of solid gates, and by 2026 all storefront gates must show 70% visibility to the interior. Gross also mentions business owners and residents cooperating with the newly formed Village Alliance to create a business improvement district in the area. The Alliance, friend of GVSHP, was founded in 1993, surely for many of the reasons described in the piece. They’re still around today, supporting local business, preservation, and sensible development (and partnering with GVSHP on fun trivia events!).
One thing I couldn’t help notice was the same in 1993 as it is now – the feeling that NYU is taking over the neighborhood. Gross mentions a conspiracy theory circulating that some wealthy residents and city planners were in cahoots with NYU to greatly expand the school’s presence in the neighborhood, starting with a 1993 plan to close many Village streets in service of a “campus-like” atmosphere. Although the plan was abandoned the same year, it’s certainly true that NYU had their sights on Village real estate. Some things never change.
Were you a Villager, or New Yorker, in 1993? Take some time to read the article today – share your hindsight-aided thoughts, or take us down memory lane with your own stories of mid-90’s New York.