Greenwich Village

The Village is tops in NYC. It is the city at the moment of its inception. Much of the Village character and charm lies in stark opposition to the Cartesian grid of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. We experience the Village as a jumble of streets contained by the Commissioners’s grid. So much so that getting lost walking in the Village is one of its prime attractions. The Village urbanism combines human scale and high density. As an object lesson in ‘good’ urbanism it pushes against the ever pressing question: How much density can be packed into one place before we begin giving it all away?

The Village today is the result of what was first built to house the ‘Jet Set’ of the Industrial Revolution, then redeveloped to house the post-Civil War boom. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822 gave well-to-do New Yorkers living south of City Hall reason to flee to an outlying district—Greenwich Village. The first wave of urbanization in the Village followed in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861−65). From the 1860’s to the end of the century this wonderful place began to strain under the weight of one wave of modernization after the other. By the 1960s the residents were mad as hell, and not taking it any more. Good for them. Tampering with the Village became a cause for resistance. They saved their neighbourhood, and left thee rest of us with an urban legacy to emulate and even do one better.

Disruptions in the urban tissue

With the exception of  6th Avenue, the 1811 Commissioner’s plan left all settled areas south of 14th Street alone. 6th Avenue was cut through the Village to terminate at Carmine Street. Today there is a triangular urban room there, severely compromised by the sheer scale (width) of 6th Avenue. However, coming in the early days of the Village formation, by now the intrusion of 6th Avenue has been fully integrated. 7th Avenue also formed part of the 1811 plan, starting on its northern boundary. Originating at 11th Street, then heading northward from there, it caused no appreciable disruption in the Village footprint. That would change in later years.

Injury to the urban tissue arrived in 1878 with the construction of the elevated IRT Sixth Avenue Line. The elevated Interborough Rapid Transit shadowed 6th Avenue and wreaked havoc with the real estate market. The character of the street changed dramatically. Period photographs show the buildings fronting the IRT developing with a different scale and character.

In the mid 1920’s, Sixth Avenue was extended south to the Holland Tunnel. This extension was part of the construction of the IRT 8th Avenue Line. Sixth was widened into a continuous 4-lane traffic route from Lower Manhattan north to Church Street. In 1938, once subway technology was in place, the elevated lines came down. However, the removal of the blighting presence overhead was soon be replaced by the negative effects of high volumes of automobile traffic on the new wider street. The additional width of pavements was not for pedestrian use. No matter which way the engineers turned, blight was left in their trail.

By far the worst intrusion came in the first decade of the 20th century with the construction of subways. In this period the preferred method of construction was cut-and-cover. Streets were widened as required, then torn up to dig a trench for the subway to run in. Once the rail bed and the subway stations were in place, the trench was covered from above with a roof structure supported on steel columns below.

The result below ground, in the subways, is of underground caverns dotted with steel posts. If the air could be made less stale—it seems every subway system I have experienced has a particular smell all its own—the resulting spaces can be quite striking. Above grade the scene is anything but wondrous. As one NYC staffer put it to me, street tree planting was out of the question because the ground plane is entirely supported by columns and can’t bear the additional weight. (The implied question in her gaze: Why would you want to put trees there anyway? We will leave to another posting). Thus, to a great extent the character of 7th Avenue on the ground is a result of what was done below grade.

Punching 7th Avenue through the village as far as Clarkson Street was approved in 1911. As can be seen in the street layout today, the 7th Avenue extension ripped apart the very heart of the Village, cutting at an angle to the existing grid, and leaving a trail of unusable triangular sites in its wake. The damage was done by 1914, four years ahead of the opening of the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue line in 1918.

A Chronology of change

In its first century of existence the character of the Village underwent severe alterations in quick succession.

  1. 1811 —The Commissioner’s Plan plats a new urban spine in the Village: 6th Avenue.
  2. Mid 1800’s —original row houses replaced by tenements (apartments). In the post-Civil War years a neighbourhood of row houses was converted almost entirely into a zone of tenement buildings. Apartments were accessed through central stairways and dark hallways. The distances to the neighbours at back are sometimes too close to allow for daylighting and privacy.
  3. 1878 —construction of the elevated train blighting 6th Avenue, and setting the stage for further disruptions.
  4. 1914 Seventh Avenue punched south of 14th Avenue, through the very heart of the Village; cut-and-cover construction for a new subway line dictate the quality of the urban spaces above.
  5. 1920’s —6th, 7th, and 8th Avenue Subways under construction. Street widening underway above ground.
  6. 1940 Sixth Avenue ‘El’ taken down.
  7. 1960 just twenty years later the neighbourhood organized to fight whole sale demolition of the entire area in the name of modernization.

Bleeker & McDougal

We will start at the the place that has been the heart of the Village on many visits—not Washington Square (Napoleonic Arch, 1871); the crossing of Bleeker and Christopher; Sheridan Square; or the blocks bounded by Barrow, Commerce, Bedford and Bleeker—but at the corner of McDougal and Bleeker streets where there is a café on every corner. This cross roads has never seemed like the true center, but it has always served as the provisional core until further research brought new discoveries. Here, we are a stone’s throw from 6th Avenue (the Avenue of the Americas) and a short walk from the 7th Avenue Subway. Cornellia Street, just one block long, is not far away with family restaurants packing the locals on weeknights, and the tourists the rest of the time.

The first of a number of surprises in the Village urbanism is that whatever the eventual story of Bleeker & McDougal, it is unlikely the we can come upon the historic center of the Village just by walking its streets. That the disruptions to the street grid have been that severe is almost obvious at a glance.

The Village urbanism is street urbanism. We will trace the short streets—Grove, Barrow, Commerce, Morton, Leroy, and Carmine—to discover its most enigmatic places. Looking at the map we can see that these set up as paired blocks on either side of Bleeker Street. Corneilia and Jones Streets are off-set, their street end vista terminats at both Bleeker and 4th Avenue, a feature determined by the fact that the block delineated by Barrow, Commerce, Bedford and Bleeker is only half of the typical block depth. Was this intended as a Village Green? Today, Bedford and Bleeker function as village spines stringing the neighbourhood together and presenting a challenge to the intrusions of 6th and 7th Avenues. The history of Washington Square reveals that it was not one of the primary shaping influences in Village platting. Christopher Street emerges as a strong candidate for one of the original crossing streets. From local historical research we will learn that the Village had an active port to the west, on the Hudson River.

The village plan below illustrates the result of cutting through Seventh Avenue. It shows the Village blocks whole as they had been left in 1811, and as they should be—after a future urban repair plan. The intrusion of 7th Avenue suggests itself as the source of language such as “urban tissue” and “repair of the urban fabric”. Close inspection quickly reveals how the new ‘Great Avenue’ completely inverted the walking pattern in the Village, undermining the role of Bedford and Bleeker as spines, replacing the with a ‘short cut’ that nobody wants to walk, and creating a series of triangular blocks along its path on either side that are unbuildable. Opening Seventh Avenue disturbed the balance in the massing between open space and solid block in the Village urbanism. A balance that remains visible today, once we learn how to look, and must be counted among the highest achievement of urban architecture in North America.

Early History: Delancey Farm Grid

On the modern map of Manhattan this is the grid of streets east of the Bowery from Division Street north to Houston Street. The bulk of this area was the 339-acre estate of the powerful Delancey family. They began the layout of streets in the southwestern part of their property in the 1760s. Their plan included a spacious square, called Delancey Square on the Ratzer map, bounded by the present Eldridge, Essex, Hester and Broome Streets.

During the American Revolution the Delanceys actively supported the Crown. Afterward, they were forced into exile and their land was confiscated by New York State. In subdividing the land for sale, the State’s Commissioners of Forfeiture continued the grid established by the Delanceys but eliminated the grand square. By 1797 the grid was nearly complete, extending to North Street on the north and Cannon Street on the east.

The 1803 Mangin-Goerck Plan added a few more streets east of Cannon Street, including Mangin and Goerck Streets. The same plan also added three streets parallel to and north of North Street, called Romaine, Minthorne and Morris (2) Streets. These last three streets appear to have been officially recognized, if only briefly, before they were superseded by the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan. See also Numbered Streets. Source.

[Note: the site of Delancey’s Square is south of Delancey Street, and east of Bowery. It is more than one mile due south of Washington Square, or some 1.25 miles following city streets].