Jane Jacobs: A Public Celebration in Washington Square Park

June 28, 2006

GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman’s speech

It’s an incredible honor to stand here today to celebrate the work of someone who so profoundly affected my own view of the world, as she did so many others.

As Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, it’s hard to know where to begin to pay tribute to someone we owe so much.

Were it not for Jane, there would likely be no Greenwich Village Historic District, that first-of-its-kind large-scale landmark district in NYC, that has kept Greenwich Village from becoming the Upper East Side, or so many other places that it could have become.

Were it not for Jane, Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan expressway would have cut through much of SoHo and the South Village, replacing vibrant neighborhoods with a superhighway.

Were it not for Jane, most of Greenwich Village west of Hudson Street would have also been demolished, as part of a “slum clearance plan” by the City.

Were it not for Jane, there would be no West Village Houses, which for more than 30 years have provided affordable housing to hundreds of families. But unlike other housing developments at the time, these subscribed to the radical notion that they should actually relate to the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood, that they should be unfancy and unpretentious, and that this was a good thing. 

And of course, were it not for Jane, cars would still be running through Washington Square Park, right where we are now standing.

But perhaps even more important than these tangible aspects of Jane’s legacy are the intangible ones.  Jane helped the world recognize that older, human-scaled, pedestrian-oriented cities are not only good, but preferable to new, pre-fabricated, car-oriented ones.

By describing the sidewalk ballet of her block, she showed us that random interactions with a diverse group of people on your street is a good thing, not a sign of blight to be corrected.

And Jane taught us that the future of our neighborhoods should not be left solely to city planners, real estate developers, and government officials.  Instead, we, the residents and business owners, should ALL have a say in determining our community’ future.

In some ways for me this last part of Jane’s legacy is perhaps the most important.  Because Jane not only accomplished so much in her 89 years, but she inspired others to do the same, and gave them the tools and the roadmap to do it.

She taught us to never give up. One of Jane’s great unfulfilled goals was seeing the Greenwich Village waterfront preserved, which was left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969.  We lost a lot of this area in the 43 years since Jane first wrote to the Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair urging him to include it in the Greenwich Village Historic District then under consideration. 

But I am proud to say that inspired by Jane, we didn’t give up.  In the last 3 years community activism has helped get two new historic districts designated along the Greenwich Village waterfront, and just this May we finally got the City to extend the Greenwich Village Historic District several blocks to the west towards the waterfront.  This will hopefully ensure that Greenwich Village will stay Greenwich Village, and not become Miami, as it had been looking like it would inevitably become.

But we are not stopping there.  We are also fighting to save the South Village, the old Italian-immigrant section of Greenwich Village around Bleecker and Carmine,  MacDougal and Sullivan Streets, which was left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969 because its working-class history and architecture were not considered worthy of preserving. 

Like ours, communities throughout the City are working hard to ensure that the diversity, human scale and vibrant qualities that make them desirable and interesting places to live are preserved, and not lost due to shortsightedness, bad planning, or no planning at all.

I think that Jane would expect nothing less of any of us.  And with her inspiration and the guidance she provided, I think we actually have a chance to succeed.

Thank you.