The Provocateur ‘Godfather of the West Village’

The WestView News publisher has relentlessly advocated for his pocket of Manhattan for five decades. He’s not stopping anytime soon.

| 27 May 2022 | 12:39

“I’ll tell you one story,” says George Capsis, sinking into a black office chair, his hazel eyes weary but resolute. Although it’s not yet noon, his office is dim; a desktop computer screen provides the brightest light. Surrounded by books, files, Post-Its, and archival copies of the newspaper, the WestView News publisher weaves his tale – about an epic summer romance during a visit to Europe – methodically, pausing after every few words. He warns me, “Interviewing a 105- year-old like me could take three days.”

But George Capsis is not yet a centenarian. He’s ninety-four. In his five decades as a West Village resident, he’s fought for a neighborhood hospital, championed senior causes, slapped a policeman and two politicians, and been baptized as the “non-religious godfather of the West Village” by his most famous neighbor, Sarah Jessica Parker. Each month, Capsis publishes WestView News, a platform for local topics he considers to be disregarded by mainstream media. Advocate, instigator, living archive – above all, he’s a fervent believer in his ability to inspire change.

Seven months after Charles Lindbergh completed the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, Capsis was born to a Greek father and German mother in uptown Manhattan. His childhood was marked by the Great Depression, but the memory that he’s most adamant about sharing is one that’s more personal. One day in kindergarten, Capsis built a house with wooden blocks. His teacher complimented his structure and placed a slip of paper with “Do not disturb” written on it, explaining to Capsis that it would be there the next morning for him to continue to work on.

“Every day I labored over my little houses, and I decided that I was more skilled than anyone in the kindergarten class,” he recalls. “I was on top.” Capsis carried this blunt self-assurance – and an unapologetic need for control – into his adult life.

Capsis moved to the West Village in the late 1960s, buying the Charles Street home in which writer Sinclair Lewis had once lived. In the midst of a career in business – he worked as an executive for IBM and later as a United States Council for International Business consultant, he settled his family in the former boardinghouse. Soon after, he founded the Charles Street Block Association to populate his barren slice of the Village with trees. (The West Village is now the Manhattan neighborhood with the most street trees: 5,102 per square mile.)

When he was seventy-six, he turned what had been a block association newsletter into WestView News. Although according to its front page the “Voice of the West Village” costs two dollars, it is distributed for free each month to most of the neighborhood’s housing units. WestView’s staff is volunteer-based (barring a few minimum-wage paid editorial and distribution positions), older, and mostly white. (According to the 2020 census, the Village is 78.9% white.) But, as Capsis is quick to say, the paper is open to anyone.

Uncensored Meditations

The publication serves as a public forum for West Village residents to voice uncensored meditations on just about anything. The September 2021 edition, for example, featured articles remembering 9/11 but also included a piece by a writer for Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, an organization central to the “truther” movement. (It also featured a full-spread ad for the conspiracy group.)

WestView’s editorial decisions and tone have caused consternation over the years. Capsis made national news in 2014 for allowing a writer, James Lincoln Collier, to use the n-word in the headline for a story about former president Barack Obama. (Both insisted that the article was pro-Obama.) In the piece’s foreword, Capsis defended the headline by saying that, since the New York Times avoids using the racial epithet, he thought WestView should.

“I think it’s the last bastion of hope for everyday people,” says Dusty Berke, Capsis’ assistant. “Because if you silence all opinions, you can only have chocolate or vanilla ... I want to look at 31 flavors, and I want to see what’s right for me.” WestView’s aim to create a space for “all” stories, including those the Times would not see fit to print, corresponds to Capsis’ own penchant for provocation.

“He can be a bull in a china shop sometimes,” says Brian Pape, owner of an architectural private practice and longtime contributor to WestView. Capsis has made headlines for two different instances of physical violence in the past decade. A year after an altercation with a NYPD officer, he would be the subject of news for slapping two politicians at a 2013 rally over the closing of St. Vincent’s, the local hospital. This incident has its roots in a more intimate wound.

Biggest Preoccupation

St. Vincent’s served the Village from 1849 until it closed for financial reasons in April 2010, leaving the neighborhood without a hospital. The institution witnessed the aftermath of events like the Titanic and 9/11. In 1984, it opened the first AIDS ward in the country. Over the last decade, the establishment’s disappearance has been Capsis’ – and WestView’s – biggest preoccupation. His fight escalated in the summer of 2013, when he trekked all the way to the Bronx to be able to see his wife in her final moments. She died a few days before the aforementioned rally.

Although his lobbying for the construction of a new hospital has been unsuccessful so far, one advance is in the works. In discussions with physicians, Capsis learned that a cath lab, essential for the efficient treatment of heart attacks, was the most urgent need left behind by the tearing down of St. Vincent’s. In 2020, the construction of such a facility was approved for Lenox Health Greenwich Village, the local clinic and emergency room; it will open in the next few months.

But after decades of “battling” for the West Village, Capsis doesn’t feel adequately recognized by the community. “They take it for granted,” he says, his thorny bravado replaced for a moment by a look of dejection. “They don’t realize it’s tough. It’s hard, it really is.” In 2020, he wrote in a similarly wistful tone, “I think of how I will be remembered — and it will only be for slapping a cop and shouting at a politician who lost St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

Although Capsis may think his contributions are underappreciated, he is relentless in the pursuit of his goals. As the years go by, his paper and home remain open to new calls to action. “Anytime anybody has a problem, they come see George,” says Berke. “They know his newspaper, they hear his voice, and they know that he’ll fight like a tiger for them.”