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The South Village is a largely residential area in Lower Manhattan in New York City, directly below Washington Square Park. Known for its immigrant heritage and Bohemian history, the South Village overlaps areas of Greenwich Village and SoHo. The architecture of the South Village is primarily tenement-style apartment buildings, indicative of the area's history as an enclave for Italian-American immigrants and working-class residents of New York.
The South Village is roughly bounded by West 4th Street and Washington Square Park on the north, Seventh Avenue and Varick Street on the west, Canal Street on the south, and West Broadway and LaGuardia Place on the east.
Originally home to a merchant class in the early 19th century, by the late 19th century the area was dominated by immigrants, largely from Italy. The Italian immigrants built their own distinct parishes, to distinguish them not only from their Protestant neighbors on the north side of Washington Square Park (in Greenwich Village), but their Irish neighbors in the South Village. By the late 19th century, Italians outnumbered the Irish in the area, but were not preeminent in the local church hierarchy, especially the parish of St. Patrick’s, which covered this area. In response, the Italian-American communities of the South Village built Our Lady of Pompeii and St. Anthony of Padua, which remain the area’s defining religious edifices. Since the Italian-American community was very poor their parish churches often had to be subsidized by third parties;Our Lady of Pompeii Church was the personal charity of a woman named Annie Leary who is buried in the crypt of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral.
By the 1920s, however, as the Village had fallen out of fashion with New York’s patricians, artists, bohemians, and radical thinkers began to populate the area, and the institutions which served them, such as jazz clubs and speakeasies became commonplace throughout the area. By the 1950s and 60s, many of these had become coffeehouses and folk clubs for hippies, beatniks, and artists. These South Village establishments were frequented by some of the most significant players in these cultural movements, including Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, James Agee, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sam Shepard and Jackson Pollock.
The South Village was left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in 1969, though Village activists had pushed to include much of it. Perhaps because much of the significant history of the area was relatively recent, associated with the Beats, the Folk Revival, and modern American Theater and progressive education – and because the architecture was more reflective of the Village’s late 19th and early 20th century working-class, immigrant evolution, rather than its 19th century patrician origins – the area was sidestepped for inclusion in the historic district. There was much speculation that New York University, located on its edges and in its midst, may have also played a role in the area’s exclusion.
Two small sections of the area were designated early on by the LPC, however, as well as being listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places: the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District in 1966, and the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District in 1967. Several buildings also were individually landmarked, including Judson Memorial Church, 26, 28, and 30 Jones Street, 203 Prince Street and 83, 85, and 116 Sullivan Street were individually landmarked.
The neighborhood remained relatively free of demolitions and out-of-scale new development until the 1980s, when NYU erected the high-rise D’Agostino Hall on West Third Street. The pace of changed quickened in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the demolition of the historic Poe House and Judson Houses on West Third Street by NYU to make way for the new Furman Hall Law School Building. The relatively modest, mid-century modern NYU Skirball Student Center on Washington Square South also was demolished to make way for the considerably larger and more prominent NYU Kimmel Student Center, which was criticized for blocking the view downtown through Washington Square Arch. This increased calls for landmark and zoning protections for the South Village, which became a campaign led by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP).
GVSHP researched the history of every one of approximately 750 buildings in the 25-block area and commissioned noted architectural historian Andrew Dolkart to write a history of the area to buttress GVSHP’s proposal for a South Village Historic District. The report, research, and landmarking proposal were submitted to the LPC in December of 2006.
The LPC divided the proposed district into three sections, promising to consider only one at a time. While the Commission considered the proposal, several key buildings were lost, including the Tunnel Garage, an early Art Deco building; the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments, demolished by NYU to make way for another Law School building; the Circle in the Square Theater, the first non-profit theater; an 1861 rowhouse at 178 Bleecker Street; and 186 Spring Street, an 1824 rowhouse which gay activists and GVSHP rallied to save because it served as the home to some of the most important and influential figures in the post-Stonewall LGBT rights movement.
The first phase of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District, covering approximately 11 blocks and 235 buildings west of Sixth Avenue, were landmarked in 2010, officially designated the “Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II” (or more informally, the “South Village Extension” of the Greenwich Village Historic District).
After this, the LPC stalled on the two remaining phases of the proposed South Village Historic District, in spite of promises to move ahead. In 2012, developer Trinity Real Estate applied for a rezoning of the adjacent Hudson Square area, which would require the approval of both the NYC Planning Commission and City Council. The proposed rezoning would have allowed high-rise residential development in the manufacturing district directly bordering the South Village, which according to the developer’s own draft environmental impact statement, would have had a “direct adverse impact” upon the remaining, un-landmarked part of the proposed South Village Historic District. In its part of the environmental review for the proposed Hudson Square rezoning (which included an examination of all potential historic resources within a 400-foot radius of the proposed rezoning), the LPC also acknowledged that the remaining un-landmarked portion of the proposed South Village Historic District was “landmark-eligible.”
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation used this potential harm to spearhead a campaign to insist that the City Council (which is more responsive to community desires than the City Planning Commission) not approve the Hudson Square Rezoning unless the proposed South Village Historic District was also approved. This put pressure on City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represented the area. Quinn had long claimed to support designation of the proposed South Village Historic District, but had not exerted any political pressure to get the City to act. GVSHP waged a letter-writing campaign, took out ads in local papers, and published op-eds demanding that Quinn – who was generally supportive of rezonings requested by real estate developers and seemed inclined to support the Hudson Square rezoning – vote down the rezoning unless she was also able to get the City to move ahead with the long-delayed South Village Historic District.
The strategy paid off – partly. On March 13, 2013, the City Council announced an agreement by the City to move ahead before year’s end with “Phase II” of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District – the area east of Sixth Avenue and north of Houston Street, as well as to “survey” Phase III – the area south of Houston Street. While GVSHP and other advocates claimed victory, they pointed out the shortcomings in the Quinn-brokered deal: the landmarking would not take effect until months after the rezoning (which was to be voted on that spring); the deal only included a commitment to “survey” Phase III, with no assurances about the outcome of the survey (i.e., whether the LPC would agree to landmark the area); and even the Phase II commitment was nebulous, in that no boundaries for the proposed district were offered, and the commitment of “a vote” by year’s end did not guarantee a “yes” vote.
Sure enough, when the LPC announced its proposed boundaries for Phase II (to be called “The South Village Historic District”) in April 2013, several key sites were excluded from the district, including two NYU properties, the Kevorkian Center and Vanderbilt Hall, the latter of which occupied a full block on Washington Square South and could have, under existing zoning and without landmark protections, been replaced with a 300-foot-tall dorm. GVSHP called for the proposed district to be expanded to include the two NYU sites and a row of ten altered 1840s houses on West Houston Street, and began a campaign to convince Speaker Quinn, who brokered the deal, to pressure the LPC to bring these sites into the proposed district.
The strategy again paid off, when the LPC and Quinn announced in May that the three sites (along with another NYU building, D’Agostino Hall, which was surrounded by the other sites) would be formally added into the proposed district for consideration. At the time of the scheduled vote in December 2013, the LPC could vote to exclude any site from the district or deny landmark status to the entire proposed district. By that time Quinn, who was running for mayor and thus sensitive to pressure, would be past her election (she in fact lost badly in the Democratic primary, coming in a distant third).
The LPC voted to designate the South Village Historic District on December 17, 2013. From the beginning, the LPC expressed skepticism of the landmark-worthiness of the row of ten houses on West Houston Street, and they did in fact exclude those houses. However, in an enormous victory for GVSHP and other advocates of the landmark campaign, LPC designated more than 250 buildings on more than a dozen blocks in the South Village, including the NYU buildings – even the full-block Vanderbilt Hall with its (now-eliminated) potential for replacement by a 300-foot- tall dorm. After the vote, GVSHP and other long-time advocates for designation gathered at Le Poisson Rouge, the former site of the Village Gate Theater, for a celebration and to rally for the continued effort to landmark the remainder of the South Village.
At the end of December, LPC Chairman Robert B. Tierney wrote to GVSHP saying that the Commission’s survey found the third phase of the proposed South Village Historic District unworthy of landmark designation, and therefore the LPC would not be moving ahead with consideration of it. However, with a new Mayor taking office that January 2014, Bill de Blasio, Tierney was replaced. GVSHP and advocates are continuing the campaign to landmark the entire South Village, including the “phase III” area south of Houston Street.
In December of 2013, GVSHP’s nomination of the entire South Village to the State and National Registers of Historic Places was accepted, and the South Village was formally listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places in the spring of 2014.
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