The Birth of The Committee to Save the West Village, Led By Jane Jacobs
The battle between Village preservation icon Jane Jacobs and Robert “put a highway through every park” Moses is quite storied and well-documented. But for us, understanding it and preserving its memory — including how decisions were made, tactics used, plans that were formulated and scrapped — has special meaning, and important lessons that should not be forgotten. That is why we recently launched our Preservation History Archive. This online resource contains printed materials from organizations and individuals involved in historic preservation efforts, particularly those connected to Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, and provides granular detail at ground level about how these battles were fought and won.
One of the many great moments the archive captures: the formation on February 25, 1961, of the Committee to Save the West Village, headed up by none other than Jane Jacobs and her co-chair Dr. Don Dodelson. We dive into the archive to understand why this was such an important date to remember, and how it changed the course of our city’s history.
Formation of the Committee to Save the West Village
Mrs. Jacobs, a city planning authority and an Editor of Architectural Forum Magazine helped lead the successful fights to save Washington Square Park and to save our Hudson Street sidewalks. Dr. Dodelson leads an organization which in 1949 saved the Village area just north of the one now threatened.
The threatened area this time was 14 blocks between Hudson Street and the Hudson River. The area was designated as a slum, which meant that it could be razed and replaced with new towers in a pricey “urban renewal” scheme. At the time, Jane Jacobs was living on Hudson Street within the condemned area, and she joined with her neighbors to form the Committee to Save the West Village. Together, they meant to defeat the “slum” designation and, through brilliant tactics, they succeeded.
Saving the West Village
The concerns of the Committee were very clear – to make sure that the diverse neighborhood which existed would continue to exist. Their statement is frank about the incidence of rent increases when “middle income” housing replaces the variety of homes and buildings there already. When this happens, the Committee recognized, “the original community is uprooted. Virtually all original residents find it impossible to return. We have in this neighborhood today people of all different incomes. This would not be true in a project neighborhood with its income-class segregation.”
“We are 100% for improvement and we know our neighborhood can stand some. We are impressed with the improvement which we have already accomplished, absolutely unaided.” This was an argument for community-rooted self-improvement. “Our best efforts,” the committee wrote, “would be aimed at saving and improving, not destroying.”
The message of the Committee to their community was one of empowerment and involvement – “this is your home at stake,” they wrote. “If you have business problems, close up shop. Let the rest of the world wonder what they’ll do without you after the bulldozers…BUT BE THERE,” they wrote, of the upcoming meeting on March 7th and then the City Hall Board meeting on March 23rd with Mr. Walter Fried, a Commissioner of the Housing and Redevelopment Board. They recommended sending telegrams, which we still recommend, just digitally.
The Committee also recommended that people do their own work on their neighborhoods, painting, cleaning up, making their own improvements, and investing in their community. This kind of communal activism and investment of time and effort is a value we aim to keep alive in the Village, as inspired by Jane Jacobs and her compatriots.
The West Village of 1961
Quoting the West Village Committee:
In those days the West Village was an area of warehouses, factories, rowhouses, and tenements, close to the working waterfront. The residential population west of Hudson was largely Puerto Rican by the early ‘60s, in Jacobs’s account of the WVC founding. Bohemians and artists began moving into the low-rent apartments or renovating the old merchants’ houses. There were hotels primarily for seamen, longshoreman’s bars, and many piers, which informally, by the ‘70s, became the local places of outdoor recreation.
The Committee’s newsletter outlined much of what the neighborhood needed – coats of paint, good sanitation, and a rethinking of the way driving fit into the area. The elevated freight train line was coming down (the southern end of what is today called ‘the High Line’), and West Street was largely being used as a parking lot – the Committee suggested using West Street for traffic instead of building a new highway through the Village, as Robert Moses was suggesting.
The Committee’s Newsletters, which are collected in Village Preservation’s Preservation History Archive, outline events, happenings around the neighborhood, initiatives to improve the neighborhood, and delightful artworks and graphics from members of the community. Explore the archive here.
The West Village Committee
Having succeeded in its mission of stopping Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan and saving the neighborhood from demolition, the Committee to Save the West Village immediately re-formed as the West Village Committee in 1962. The organization still exists to this day. The Committee drew up plans for West Village Houses, which were built in the mid-1970s as affordable housing and also still exist today, running from Bank Street south to Morton Street between Washington and West streets. No one was evicted in this process of building what is, arguably, the first “infill” housing development project, and older buildings were retained. The housing is often referred to as “the Jane Jacobs houses” because of the role she played in stopping the urban renewal plan and in designing and putting forward this community-initiated building plan (this is the only built structures in the world which Jacobs had a hand in designing; while the final look of the project deviated considerably from what Jane and others originally proposed due to the city’s financial crisis of the 1970s, the groundbreakingly contextual site planning and layout were true to Jacobs’ and West Villagers’ vision).
The West Village Committee has also been involved in increasing gardens and green spaces in the neighborhood, planting trees, hosting green markets, taking care of the waterfront along the Hudson River, and in neighborhood preservation efforts. In 1992, its newsletter was a winner of the Village Award from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
To explore our entire Preservation History Archive, click here. To explore the rest of the West Village Committee collection, which covers their founding on February 25, 1961, through 1997, click here.