Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NYU's Grandiose Schemes

NYU is proposing to add 6 million square feet of new space across New York City in the next twenty years, with half the growth taking place in the historic blocks of the Village—the equivalent of three Javits Centers.

Let me translate: NYU plans to add 3 million square feet of construction to my neighborhood (a lot of it on my block) and apparently not much can be done to stop it. The recent landmark status accorded to the I.M. Pei superblock, where I live, has not been a deterrent. They want to build a 38-story new hotel tower on the site. They are going to build a 17-story building on Mercer Street facing the Angelika Film Center, where they intend to put, among other things, 1,400 freshmen. They are going to put two buildings in the beautiful and serene gardens of Washington Sq. Village.
John Sexton, the president of NYU, who confuses himself with Lorenzo de Medici in a bad way, has grandiose words to sell his vision. 
“The analogy that I use is to the Italian Renaissance, when there was Milan and Venice and Florence and Rome, and the talent and creative class moved among those points,”
As if. Yet he talks about the opposition as "demagogues" and "activists". But the opposition is actually mostly neighbors. It's the people who live in the buildings and on the streets where this monstrous expansion is slated to take place. Many of the faculty who live in the Pei towers and Washington Sq. Village are not jumping for joy either. It is not so much about preserving a bohemian and artistic character that, let's be frank, has been virtually lost. It's about NYU not engulfing everything on sight.
Of course the expansion plan is a boon for construction work and jobs and money for the city, which is why Bloomberg and the politicians don't oppose it. In New York City, preservation efforts are massively heroic and mostly doomed to failure. This is the only civilized city in the world where a gorgeous and important landmark like the original Penn Station was torn down, a city that would have torn down Grand Central Station if those pesky activists and demagogues had not fought to stop it. They had Jacqueline Onassis on their side. The neighbors who live in the Pei superblock (which I am not comparing to the train stations) don't have the glamorous power credentials. We are just people. Of the three Pei towers, two are faculty housing for NYU and the other one is a Mitchell-Lama Co-op where middle class people of all ages and races live. There are a lot of elderly residents. It is a community.  And it is a community of Greenwich Villagers.
The irony is that the Pei superblock was an offending eyesore in its day. Together with the Washington Square Village buildings across the street, an entire swath of quaint Greenwich Village was demolished to make way for its brutalist, modernist aesthetic, and at least in the case of my building, for middle income people to have affordable housing. I assume this must have been a concession the city asked of NYU in order to let them build. The buildings were hated in their day (1960), but time has proven them to have been executed with a certain grace, and they provided enduring public spaces for community life. As happens with buildings of a certain age, now they have a retro feel that people are actually fond of and they are architecturally significant (I guess the Pei more than the Washington Sq. Village, but I happen to love the blocky sixties architecture and their peaceful inner courtyards).
I'm not opposed to progress. Cities change. The village is a pathetic shadow of what it used to be. But it should not become NYU. What I like about the Village is that it is full of lively and engaged people who are putting up a fight.
The little people

1 comment:

  1. Amen! I'm newer to the village than you, to be sure, but it's been inspiring to see the tenants of WSV and surrounding neighbors rallying to protect the fabric of the community. Thanks for the great post!