Greenwich Village

Commentary, Greenwich Village

Wittgensteinian villages

Last month I guessed that when Ari Wallach said that Hastings-on-Hudson is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sense,” he meant that it was part of a family of things that are called “villages,” but don’t all share the same set of criteria. Wallach confirmed on Twitter that this was what he meant.

Wittgenstein’s example came from the area of games, where poker is competitive and contains elements of chance, tic-tac-toe is competitive but involves no element of chance, and solitaire contains elements of chance but is not competitive. Meanwhile, there are things that are not games but are competitive, like war, and things that are not games but involve chance, like weather forecasting.


In my previous post I had four criteria for “games,” but I chose to focus on two of them to make the diagrams easier to read.

Similarly, George Lakoff argued, a typical mother provides genetic material to her child and nurtures the child once it is born. A genetic mother does not necessarily nurture the child and an adoptive mother does not provide genetic material, but they are both considered to be mothers. A father can provide genetic material, and an teacher can nurture, but they are not mothers. Lakoff calls these radial categories.


(Strictly speaking, war contains elements of chance, and fathers can nurture, so the diagrams don’t quite fit the way people think about these categories, but it’s hard to capture everything.)

Back to Hastings-on-Hudson: it is legally incorporated as a village, but it is more suburban than rural, bordering on the city of Yonkers. Greenwich Village and Queens Village were once villages, but are now neighborhoods in New York City, and may not be considered villages by anyone anymore. Meanwhile, Huntington Village on Long Island is more rural, but is not legally a village. A typical village, like New Paltz, is incorporated and rural. Then there are rural areas like Wittenberg (where I spent a good part of my childhood, essentially a crossroads with a general store), and incorporated areas like Buffalo, that are not villages.


These “family resemblances” are everywhere in human categorization, and they are the basis for many of what I call “category fights.” The existence of this kind of polysemy is rarely acknowledged, unfortunately, and many people argue over these categories as though they were Platonic categories with necessary and sufficient conditions, when the actual facts are more complicated.

Commentary, Greenwich Village

Modern towers can respect the street

If you’re walking up Broadway in Greenwich Village, you’ll get to the block between Waverly Place and Eighth Street:

Notice how there’s a continuous row of shops (except for the garage) that respects the “build to” line, as do the shops on the following block. Above the shops is a setback, and then the 31-story Georgetown Plaza tower, built in 1965.

On the same block, right next to where I took the picture above, the shops continue with the venerable “Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger” diner, a liquor store and the Delion Deli. Above them is the 35-story Hilary Gardens tower, built in 1972.

It’s not classic Greenwich Village urbanism or a quiet residential street, but it’s easy to walk and provides a stimulating visual environment. It fits in so well with the surrounding ground-floor retail that I only recently noticed that the buildings were postwar towers.

Contrast this with the boring vegetation along Washington Square Village, or the pointless lawn of Silver Towers.

If the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation really wanted to “protect the character of our neighborhood,” they would ask NYU to build retail out to meet the sidewalks of Third, Bleecker and especially Houston Street. That’s what the area needs, not more pointless, inaccessible “open space,” and not to be frozen in amber in 1967.

Commentary, Greenwich Village

A beautiful residential block

Here is West Tenth Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues:

Whenever I walk here I feel calmer and happier, much more so than on Mercer or LaGuardia, even though those streets have “green space.” Something about the buildings coming up to the lot lines and the subtle diversity of styles.

congestion pricing, Greenwich Village

The character of Silver Towers

The form letters that the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation asks you to send to various officials all contain the same bullshit phrase: “Please protect the character of our neighborhood…”

Yes, that’s right. Some people believe that the character of Greenwich Village is intimately bound up with a curb cut leading to a filthy concrete garage entrance, an unadorned cast iron fence keeping the public off of a pointless lawn, and a car-free street that manages to be devoid of pedestrian activity. Oh, Scott Stringer, save this vulnerable piece of neighborhood character!

Commentary, Greenwich Village

Another pedestrian-unfriendly NYU backside

Here’s the back of the NYU Stern School of Business, facing West Third Street:

It has a decent sidewalk, but if you’re walking east, on your right you have parked cars and on your left you have this fence. Wrought-iron is better than chain link, but it’s still not very pleasant, and if you look through the fence all you see are ventilation ducts and other building support equipment. It’s not even like the back of Bobst Library, where you can at least look at people and books.

Commentary, Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village’s narrow streets

Last month, Cap’n Transit had a post about the Really Narrow Streets of Manhattan. Here is a narrow street in Greenwich Village, not too far from NYU.

I think we can safely say that Minetta Lane, about thirty feet wide, is not living up to its potential as a Really Narrow Street. In this case, there are three possible reasons that come to mind. First, the city is imposing a division of street and sidewalk that keeps the sidewalk too narrow for any real commerce to take place (see also parts of Paris), and bolstering this division by allowing the same 30mph speeds as anywhere else in the city, but allowing the division to be erased by the well-connected drivers of these vans. Second, the lots are large and have at most one retail establishment each.

There may be a noise issue here: I know that noise complaints are relatively common in the Village, but I don’t know how much residents may have complained specifically about the Minetta Lane Theater, Bellavitae or the back door of Cafe Wha?.

It turns out that there is quite a backstory, discussed by Stephen Crane and a number of posts on the Media History of New York blog. Will Minetta Lane ever transcend this history to become more than a quiet backwater where people just pass through and become a place once again?

Commentary, Greenwich Village

What’s wrong with this picture?

I feel kind of guilty complaining about this. Look, you’ve got a decent width sidewalk, the street isn’t oppressively wide, and you’ve got greenery! Shrubs! Plane trees! And two supermarkets within a few blocks!

I would have loved something like it in Albuquerque, or in Greenville. I would even prefer it to the development around Saint John’s. But this is not New Mexico, or North Carolina, or even Queens. It’s Manhattan.

Commentary, Greenwich Village

NYU’s back door problem

New York University has bought a lot of old buildings in the Washington Square area, and built a bunch of new ones.  This is a great example of adaptive reuse and infill development, better than building satellite campuses.  It’s not like they haven’t tried the suburban campus thing before: Bronx Community College occupies their old main campus, and Hofstra University was originally a branch of NYU.

Unfortunately, NYU hasn’t figured out how to integrate itself well at the street level.  The old stores, factories and apartments it replaced had multiple street entrances, but entrances are expensive to guard, so NYU only has one or two per building.  In some buildings there is street-level retail, often aimed at students and faculty, but many more have no entrances or windows.  You can see this in the above photo, looking west on Third Street, away from Washington Square Village.

Commentary, Greenwich Village

Biting the hand that feeds me

I read Cap’n Transit’s post on “Bleecker Stroad” with interest, because I lived in Greenwich Village when I was a kid, and I just got a job working for New York University.  I agree with the Cap’n that there are serious problems with NYU’s plans to expand in the area, and there are also serious problems with the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation’s campaign to defend some pretty indefensible buildings.

I am being paid by NYU to do completely unrelated work, and nothing I write here is intended to flatter or influence the University.  In fact, some of it may be critical of NYU.  Probably the less I write the better, though.  I’ll just post some pictures and let them speak for themselves about the existing development and how it relates to the urban environment.

The first picture shows one of the four entrances to Washington Square Village.  They are all more or less identical.  Two face north and two face south, none of them lining up with anything in particular across the street.  They all have big driveways and small sidewalks.