“Whither the Village?”


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Actor Alec Baldwin moderates panel on the future of Greenwich Village as the neighborhood continues to face gentrification


Photos



  • Andrew Berman, Alec Baldwin, Donna Schaper and Allyson Green at the panel discussion at Judson Memorial Church. Photo: Jaden Satenstein




  • “We can work in unison”: at the reception after the panel. Photo: Jaden Satenstein




  • Alec Baldwin (center), with Andrew Berman and Donna Schaper: “Get the whining out of the way first.” Photo: Jaden Satenstein




Greenwich Village has long been celebrated as a hub of New York City arts, culture and activism. Home to the Stonewall Inn, the neighborhood has played a large role in the fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. It is also the place where many musicians, writers and other artists got their start, going on to revolutionize the New York City arts scene.

Many residents now fear that the neighborhood has changed.

No longer affordable for the struggling bohemians and starving artists that once made it famous, the Village has seen an influx of high-rise developments and a decrease in small businesses. This transformation poses the question: How can the Village maintain its original magic as it continues to gentrify?

Opening the Conversation

Members of the Village community discussed just that during a panel called “Whither the Village?” at Judson Memorial Church on Thursday, June 20. Moderated by actor and Village resident Alec Baldwin, the panel featured Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Andrew Berman, Dean of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Allyson Green and Judson Memorial Church Senior Minister Donna Schaper.

Baldwin is a strong supporter of Judson Memorial Church, a beloved institution due to its mission of community outreach and progressivism.

“Judson, long before even Stonewall, was the home for many, many gay people,” Schaper said to Our Town Downtown before the event. “The congregation is mostly gay, increasingly trans ... Our theology and our practice really says, ‘What’s the big deal how you express yourself sexually?’”

Schaper said that the panel, which raised money for the church through its $20 ticket fee, was Baldwin’s idea.

“It came about because Alec and I were becoming friends,” Schaper said. “I was approaching him about supporting Judson. And he said, you know, ‘I just want to hang out.’ So he’s been coming by and meeting everybody and I said, ‘What would you really love to do for us, because we need all the help we can get,’ and he said, ‘Why don’t I organize a panel? And let’s do something that’s kind of a thought piece about the Village and where you all fit in and what’s going on.’”

The Cost of High Costs

Baldwin began the discussion by telling the panelists to “Get the whining out of the way first” and express what they see as the challenges currently facing the area.

“A lot of my younger friends, people who are younger than me, they talk about Manhattan like it’s Beverly Hills. ‘It’s all rich, old people in Manhattan,’” Baldwin said, “The needs of the real estate market, the needs of businesses as fueled by investment banking, the needs of municipal unions ... politicians to hold on to their power, both in City Hall and in Albany, these are the things that are the rarely unseen hand that controls the life of New York.”

Panelists echoed Balwin’s sentiments, noting how the high rents in the Village have caused many of its best community spaces to get pushed out, such as small bookstores and artist lofts.

Is NYU to Blame?

One of the most controversial elements of the debate surrounding Village gentrification is the ever-expanding New York University campus, which many argue has caused the cost of the neighborhood to sky-rocket and thus drive out lower to middle income residents.

“The biggest problem is NYU, and the biggest asset is NYU,” Schaper said before the event. “NYU does bring cultural and racial diversity that is wonderful. And they also bring a kind of economic upgrade. You know, they buy all the apartments, and so we don’t have the kind of economic diversity that we used to have. And whether that is crucial to being the avant-garde place that we have been is a good question. I wouldn’t know. But that’s going to be the question. And what, if anything, can NYU do about economic diversity at this late state in their lives?”

Many longtime Village residents consider NYU to be, as Baldwin jokingly called it earlier in the panel, the “colossus” of the Village, especially since the University announced its 2031 expansion plan, which includes the $1.285 billion 181 Mercer Street Project.

Green, who sat on NYU’s University Space Priorities Working Group when she joined the University faculty in 2012, expressed her belief that the University’s presence has actually protected the Village from even larger transformations.

“When I was on that contentious committee, I was always reflecting upon the sense of the argument that the neighborhood would have somehow stayed the same if NYU had not been here,” Green said. “And it’s my personal feeling that it’s more likely that it would have been an enclave of high rise condos like Midtown and Central Park. I think about, actually, the value of what NYU has brought to staying in the neighborhood.”

Finding Solutions

After identifying the positive and negative aspects of the Village’s recent challenges, panelists began to propose possible solutions. One hope for the neighborhood that all the panelists shared was for it to become more pedestrian-friendly, discussing the idea of closing University Place to cars.

Berman noted that in order for the street closure to be successful, its intended use — whether it be for pedestrians, NYU, corporations or public programming — would have to be determined in advance.

“Pedestrianizing more spaces ... is a good thing,” Berman said. “That said, as with any of this, the devil is in the details. Often times when these kinds of spaces are closed down they can sometimes end up getting kind of privatized.”

Although the panelists identified the decline of small, local businesses as a large problem facing the neighborhood, Baldwin proposed a way to take advantage of the growing online shopping industry driving shops out of business: Turning former retail spaces into affordable housing.

“The demand for this retail space is not going to come back because of the online community. Why don’t we start to make some of these buildings into affordable housing?” Baldwin said. “To me, the Village is about open-mindedness. I don’t want to say they’re more humane here than they are uptown, but they’re willing to be more understanding about these conditions, and therefore this is the place where we need to have more affordable housing built in the city.”

Continuing the Fight

A reception in the church’s gym followed the panel, during which attendees expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to initiate a discussion on this topic. To lifelong Village resident Susan Meyer, the event was a great way to bring the community together and fight for the place they call home.

“I was born in the Village, I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve never lived north of 14th street,” Meyer said. “And I’ve seen it change, I’ve seen it fall more and more into the hands of big developers who couldn’t care less about what the future of the Village is. So these kinds of forums where we put ideas ... together, where we can create many organizations, we can create various ways where we can work in unison, we might be able to, at least, elect people who will support us, and we don’t have that now.”






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