About West Village
West Village Guide
The West Village neighborhood is bounded by the Hudson River, the south side of 14th Street, the north side of Houston Street and the west side of Seventh Avenue and Seventh Avenue South.
For decades, it was not considered distinct from Greenwich Village and technically was south of the Meat-Packing District that is clustered between Gansevoort and 14th Streets between the Hudson River and Ninth Avenue.
The city’s most famous “neighborhood,” Greenwich Village is the city’s largest "historic district", which means that any exterior alteration to the district’s more than 4,300 buildings must be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The 4,300 or so properties include a few architectural masterworks, and many lovely 19th Century townhouses as well as many tenement buildings and parking lots.
The historic district’s boundaries are, roughly, from Washington Square East and the east side of University Place to 12th and 13th Streets to Gansevoort Street to Horatio Street to Washington Street to Perry Street to Greenwich Street to Barrow Street to Hudson Street to St. Luke’s Place to the Avenue of the Americas to Barrow Street to West Fourth Street and back to Washington Square East.
The official boundaries actually exclude several areas that are popular and historically considered to be in the “Village” including Bleecker Street, Cornelia Street and much of MacDougal Street.
The “unofficial” boundaries now generally recognized for Greenwich Village is the area bounded by the south side of 14th Street, the north side of Houston Street, the east side of Seventh Avenue and Seventh Avenue South and the west side of Broadway.
In their excellent book, “The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition,” Elliot Willensky and Norval White provided the following introduction to the area:
“…Greenwich village is a concentration of contrasts in a city of contrasts. But in the Village’s case, these contrasts have long been synonymous with its identity: Bohemia. This is less apparent today than when both aspiring and successful artists and writers gravitated to this crooked-streeted, humanely scaled, out-of-the-way, low-rent enclave passed over by the city’s growth northward.
“…Since around 1900 the Village has not only been a proving ground for new ideas among its creative residents but also a symbol of the forbidden, the free life—the closest thing to Paris that we had in this country. With the opening up of Sixth and Seventh Avenues and the subways beneath them, the area became even more accessible. After the hiatus caused by the Depression and World War II, the Village once again attracted interest, this time from high-rise housing developers, from smaller entrepreneurs who created little studio apartments with minispaces inversely proportional to their high rents, and from tenants who left the ‘duller’ (meaning the outer) parts of the city to taste forbidden fruit. Creators were swept out by observers (middle-class doctors, dentists, cloak and suiters, and other vicarious residents). The people of the visible Village changed – leaving West Village families, such as those written about by Jane Jacobs, and those of the South Village (the Italian community), to go about their own business, largely unnoticed. In the 1950s it was the Beat generation; since then, after a bout with the drug culture (which has moved easterly) it has returned to beckon yet another younger generation with its special raffishness. As its nostalgic glamour fades, it continues to fulfill a variety of seemingly conflicting roles; a genteel place to live, a fashionable step up the professional ladder, a sprawling ground for movements such as feminism and gay liberation, a singles’ haven, a place to raise a family—in short, a perplexing but certainly not colorless community….”
“The city commissioners, having already contemplated the future growth of Manhattan, appointed John Randel Jr., who from 1808 to 1811 prepared maps and plans for the present grid-iron of Manhattan’s streets. The Village escaped most of this layout, however, since it was simply too difficult to impose it over the well-established pattern. The commissioners, though, had their way with the hills, leveling them all by 1811 and taking with them the grandeur of the old estates. These properties were then easily divisible into small city lots, and by 1822 the community was densely settled, many of the settlers ‘refugees’ from a series of ‘downtown’ epidemics.
“Sailors’ Snug Harbor and Trinity Parish have both had leading roles in the Village’s growth. The Harbor was founded in 1801, when Captain Robert Richard Randall deeded in perpetual lease 21 acres of land (around and north of Washington Square), together with a modest cash grant, for the support of a home for aged seamen. It was moved to Staten Island in 1833, and since then has received its income from its leased village land. Prior to the 1920s, its property had been divided into small lots, rented mainly for individual residences. Since then, land values have skyrocketed, and the Harbor understandably sought to increase its income from its holdings. In doing so, however, it leased rather indiscriminately, permitting the demolition of many historic and architectural treasures and their replacement by mediocre works, to the detriment of the area.
“Trinity Parish made great contributions to the development of the West Village in the 19th century, encouraging respectful care and beautification of its leased land. In 1822, it developed a residential settlement around St. Luke’s Church, which to this day is a positive influence upon the neighborhood.”
The major movie palace in the Village for decades was the Loew’s Sheridan, which was not on Sheridan Square but several blocks north on a triangular block bounded by Greenwich and Seventh Avenues and West 12th Street. It was demolished by St. Vincent’s Hospital for a loading dock and the hospital’s expansion plans a generation later called for the planned demolition of Albert C. Ledner’s great National Maritime Union Building with its port-hole motifs, which became one of the great preservation battles in the Village’s history.
In the preface to his book, “Republic of Dreams, Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960,” Ross Wetzsteon provided the following commentary:
“’Greenwich Village isn’t what it used to be.’ When I started this book ten years ago, I knew that would be its first sentence. And when I soon discovered that the phrase had been used as early as 1916, I knew the history of the Village would be in large part the ever recurring birth and death and rebirth of Bohemia. Youth, romance, adventure -- joy, poetry, rebellion - what so quickly recedes into our past? - what more often begins again?
“The Village has been called ‘the most significant square mile in American cultural history,’ ‘the home of half the talent and half the eccentricity in the country,’ ‘the place where everything happens first.’ As a young journalist named John Reed said in the teens, ‘Within a block of my house was all the adventure in the world; within a mile every foreign country.’ The young scholar named Lionel Trilling declared in the twenties, ‘There seemed no other place where a right-thinking person might live.’ And a young actress named Lucille Ball put it in the forties, ‘The Village is the greatest place in the world.’
“Many major movements in American intellectual history began or were nurtured in the Village -- socialism, feminism, pacifism, gay liberation, Marxism, Freudianism, avant-garde fiction and poetry and theater, cubism, abstract expressionism, the anti-war movement and the counterculture of the sixties. And nearly every major American writer and artist lived in the Village at one time or another. What other community could claim a spectrum ranging from Henry James to Marlon Brando, from Marcel Duchamp to Bob Dylan, from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to Abbie Hoffman?”
Mr. Wetzsteon documented a lot of the Village’s fantastic cultural history:
“The first pizza served in America was served in the Village, also the first spaghetti dinner and the first ice cream soda. More in keeping with its mythology, the first labor demonstration in America took place there in the 1830s, when local stonecutters protested the use of Sing Sing convicts to cut stone for the construction of New York University (the nation’s largest private university). And where else could the Unitary Household have been founded in 1859 (the first free-love community in the country), or, for that matter, the American Civil Liberties Union? The first musical comedy, the first theatrical cliffhanger, the first cabaret, the first American production of a play by Oscar Wilde. John L. Sullivan had his first fight there and George M. Cohan made his stage debut. The first theatrical agency (William Morris), the first salon, and, naturally, the first professional women’s organization.
“That quintessential American, the inventor, also had his place in Village history. For a time Thomas Edison had his office there (his son Charles was a Village poet, a fact he didn’t dwell on, years later, when he was elected governor of New Jersey). Samuel Colt invented the Colt .45 there, and Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph. Bell Laboratories in the West Village (now an artists’ housing complex called Westbeth) was the site of the first commercial radio broadcast and the first TV broadcast. The PA system was developed there as well as the sound-on-disc projector, which made talkies possible.
Over the years, many movies have been set in the West Village such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Barefoot in the Park.”
Dylan Thomas and Norman Mailer did serious drinking at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street and the list of major American intellectuals and writers who have haunted the West Village is very long and very, very impressive as is the legendary history of the Village Vanguard, the jazz club on Seventh Avenue.
The West Village has had two defining “moments”: the fight led by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s to oppose a plan by Robert Moses to create an expressway between the Hudson and East Rivers; and the creation in the early years of the 21st Century of modernist, mid-rise apartment buildings along West Street facing the Hudson River designed by Richard Meier.
Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of American Cities,” was the highly influential urban planner who argued that residential neighborhoods are best served by low-rise buildings whose residents know everybody and keep an eye on everything. She relocated to Toronto and her legacy includes “West Village Houses,” probably the ugliest residential buildings ever built in the 20th Century in the city. Her legacy, however, also includes a greatly heightened presence of community activism, most often expressed in the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) Syndrome that opposes virtually all new development and does not differentiate between fire-escaped-littered tenements and architectural masterpieces.
Although a lot of the West Village falls within the Greenwich Village Historic District, a great deal does not including the many industrial buildings near the waterfront. The West Village neighborhood includes many of the prettiest blocks in the city, tree-lined streets with handsome mid- and late-19th Century brownstones and townhouses. Its streets are not part of the rectilinear grid of most of the Manhattan north of 14th Street.
Richard Meier was a member of “The New York Five,” young architects who admired the clean, white, Modernist architecture of Le Corbusier and started their careers in the late 1960s.” The other four architects were Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves, and John Hedjuk. All but Hedjuk would go on to very successful careers.”
Mr. Meier is best known for his design of the sprawling Getty Museum near Los Angeles, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana, and the Jubilee Church in Rome, Italy.
The three Meier buildings facing West Street are located at 173 Perry Street, 176 Perry Street and 165 Charles Street. The Perry Street buildings were designed first for Richard Born and the Charles Street building was designed for Izak Senbahar and Simon Elias of Alexico Management. It is very unusual for a developer to commission a building that is very, very similar to those erected by a different architect, especially when the sites are adjacent. The Charles Street building is different because it is broader and because Meier also designed the interiors.
The timing of the Meier buildings in the first years of the 21st Century was excellent as the city was beginning an historic building boom and their cool, clean aesthetic attracted numerous celebrities and because the buildings were so successful Meier, who had already won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, became the city’s first “starchitect.”
Meier, of course, was not new to the West Village and had designed the residential conversion in the 1960s of a former Bell Labs building to Westbeth, the largest “artists community in the world,” a 383-unit complex whose resident artists have included Merce Cunningham, Gil Evans and Diane Arbus.
The three West Street buildings designed by Meier face on a very attractive new waterfront park and they are directly north of a large new, 15-story-high residential complex at 150 Charles Street developed by The Witkoff Group and designed by Cook & Fox.
The success of the Meier buildings was quickly followed by an explosion of new “starchitect” projects in the city, such as 40 Bond Street in NoHo, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the designers of the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing; 100 Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea and 54 West 54th Street by Jean Nouvel; and 8 Spruce Street near City Hall by Frank O. Gehry, and One Jackson Square at 13th Street and Greenwich Avenue, designed by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox.
The rippling façade of One Jackson Square will be one of the most attractive in the city and a big departure from the rectilinear forms of most buildings in the West Village.
1 Morton Square, a few blocks south of the Meier Buildings on West Street, was a very large and good-looking full-block residential development designed in 2004 on a former United Parcel Service parking lot by Costas Kondylis, and a few blocks north of the Meier Buildings is another new full-block residential development at 70 Bethune Street designed by Robert A. M. Stern on the former Superior Ink plant site on West Street.
The Superior Ink project was developed by The Related Companies, which initially commissioned Charles Gwathmey who had designed Astor Place, the sinuously curved condo tower in the East Village just to the west of Cooper Union. Community activists in the West Village, however, did not want a tall, sinuous tower by Gwathmey and eventually convinced Related to downsize the project and hire Mr. Stern, who was gaining acclaim for his Post-Modern luxury apartment building at 15 Central Park West, to redesign the project.
One of the most attractive post-war apartment buildings in the West Village is the 11-story condo building at 99 Jane Street that was designed in 1999 for the Rockrose Development Corporation and has a very large and attractive front garden.
There are numerous mid-rise apartment buildings scattered around the West Village, some on Christopher Street and some around Abingdon Square. There are also several large former commercial buildings that were converted to residential use such as the Printing House on Hudson Street and the former Federal Archives Building on Christopher Street just to the west of the full-block complex belonging to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and its school.
The traditional heart of the West Village was around Sheridan Square but the redevelopment of the former Meat Packing District south of 14th Street and west of Ninth Avenue quickly became the city’s most vibrant nightlife area in the early 21st Century lead by the popularity of such restaurants as Pastis and the rooftop bar and lounges of the Gansevoort Hotel with the pulsating colors of its entrance columns.
What is truly impressive about the West Village is the enormous number of thriving restaurants.
The West Village’s future is sure to be reinforced by the emergence of a slew of interesting new architectural projects along the High Line just to the north in Chelsea, which has became very popular but does not have anywhere near as large an inventory of attractive 19th century low-rise houses as the West Village.
The popularity of the SoHo and Chelsea districts to the south and north, respectively, of the West Village have greatly reinforced its desirability as well as inflated the cost of its housing.
The West Village remains incredibly vibrant and is more popular than ever.
There is a very strong historic preservation community in the West Village that has consistently fought fiercely to maintain its “character” and thwart major high-rise development. Most new development, therefore, is likely to be quite small in scale, and not inexpensive.