A piano being played in the park. Leaves rustling in the wind on tree-lined streets. Coffee cups clinking together from nearby cafes. These are just some of the sounds that have helped define Greenwich Village. Long praised for its unique combination of architecture, location, and rich legacy deeply rooted in the arts, Greenwich Village has cemented itself in New York City history as a quaint, attractive neighborhood. Nestled in downtown Manhattan, the Village’s desirability is apparent to visitors almost immediately, with its quiet environment and low skyline offering an alternative to the ever-present piercing sounds of car horns and imposing skyscrapers of places farther uptown. Yet upon closer examination of one of New York City’s most beloved neighborhoods, a dark history of systematic displacement, gentrification, and income inequality is revealed.
Greenwich Village became the birthplace of New York City’s bohemian movement, which began in the mid-1800s but flourished in the 20th century. With a focus on living life to its fullest potential–based on artistic endeavors, curiosity, and a dislike towards traditional work–free-spirited individuals flocked to the neighborhood for its cheap prices and then-central location within the city (Ingio 7). As the neighborhood developed, so too did its charm. Dutch settlers who established Greenwich Village in the 1600s created smaller streets, green spaces, and a healthy mix of commercial and residential buildings within walking distance that is rarely seen today. Without strict zoning restrictions that prevented mixed-use areas, this more lax style of development curated a hub of art and commerce within a quaint area of land. Such charm was officially recognized in 1979 when the National Register of Historic Places declared Greenwich Village a historic district (Ryerson 6). The declaration aims to preserve the area, making any modifications extraordinarily difficult, for better or worse, but ultimately impacting the residential makeup of the neighborhood. Throughout this research paper, I will address the overarching question that presents itself when analyzing the clear shift in the neighborhood’s demographics: How do zoning policies and gentrification impact individuals and families with low-income backgrounds and their ability to live in historic Greenwich Village? Public city data published after consequential zoning policy changes like the Historic District declaration provides introductory insight into this issue, specifically focusing on median incomes. The Citizens’ Committee For Children of New York published data listing Greenwich Village (“M02”) as the community district with the highest ranking income in 2005, with a median household income of $127,749. The Village held the #1 rank consistently from 2010-2019, only dropping in the next recorded year, 2021, following the COVID-19 pandemic (Keeping Track Online). This writing contextualizes these statistics through examination of zoning policies, making it clear that zoning legislation impeding new architectural developments inherently displaces individuals and families with limited socioeconomic mobility within the neighborhood. Additionally, these zoning acts outright prohibit newer residents with low-incomes from moving to Greenwich Village altogether.
In order to more comprehensively explore this research’s guiding question, however, it is critical to define a few of the terms that will be present throughout the research. Gentrification, as researcher Nrupen Bhavsar states, is the “change [that] occurs when a neighborhood becomes upwardly mobile through an influx of younger and/or higher SES [socioeconomic status] individuals, resulting in increased housing prices and a higher cost of living” (4). When looking at the current demographics of Greenwich Village, it becomes evident that the process of gentrification has taken place, revealed through historical comparisons of the area. Furthermore, zoning, as defined by the New York City Department of City Planning, are laws that explicitly define what can be built on pieces of property, aiming to establish organized, cohesive development throughout the city within neighborhoods (1). Greenwich Village exemplifies the tragedy of gentrification, perpetuated through overly-stringent zoning laws.
Library research, including archives, was a primary method for gathering information and gaining valuable insight into the topic of gentrification and the history of New York City’s historic Greenwich Village. With a focus on peer-reviewed articles and historical primary sources, I ensured the accuracy of the information in an effort to reduce potential biases while analyzing it in the context of displacement caused through gentrification in Greenwich Village. Additionally, I conducted several field observations to add visual context to my paper, taking thorough notes during a guided tour of Greenwich Village as well as during several other walks through the neighborhood alone. Taking into consideration the limitations of personal observation, the guided tour coupled with library research and statistical analysis allowed me to discern gentrification’s genuine impact on the neighborhood’s demographics. This ultimately addressed the question I posed regarding individuals and families with low-income backgrounds’ ability to live in Greenwich Village.
Taking a guided tour of Greenwich Village revealed unique aspects of the neighborhood’s history that are easy to overlook when solely conducting library research. The guide introduced Greenwich Village through accounts of wealthy New Yorkers fleeing a growing cholera epidemic. With the capital to physically escape the huddled masses in the predominantly-settled southernmost regions of Manhattan, upper-class residents fled to the sparsely-populated Greenwich Village in the early 1800s. Remnants of this settlement can be seen clearly on the northern side of Washington Square Park, with brick townhouses commonly referred to as “The Row.” The Row helps contextualize the character of the Village that is still seen today: impressive architecture along tree-lined streets is a major draw for visitors to the neighborhood. Now, New York University is the majority owner of The Row’s houses, a trend that makes itself clear over the course of our two-hour walk of the neighborhood.
Across the street, Washington Square Arch looks up Fifth Avenue framing the Empire State Building on one side, and looks down the other side at the World Trade Center. The former, as the guide explained, represents the arts and architecture, and the latter signifies New York City’s business and trade. While perhaps seeming inconsequential to some, the arch truly demonstrates Greenwich Village’s desirable location as New York developed and continues to usher in new generations of city residents hoping to make their mark on the world. After all, the neighborhood attracted more wealthy residents even after the cholera epidemic and yellow fever outbreaks concluded because of its physical distance from the bustling Wall Street and Financial District, yet relative closeness compared to largely sparse regions farther north. With these locational qualities, wealthy residents working in finance or industry had a secluded cluster of land in Greenwich Village that served as a respite from their daily lives, yet still had the convenience of commuting to work reasonably quickly. The arch helps physically frame this reality, but also serves as an indication of the demographic of the Village at this time. The current iteration of Washington Square Arch evolved from a temporary structure celebrating the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, only becoming a permanent fixture of the neighborhood after wealthy, patriotic residents raised funds for its marble replacement. Examining the counterculture ideas and largely anti-authority beliefs of the Village residents that followed, the arch reminds us of the juxtaposition between these two generations. One can look at the finalized arch as a literal example of architecture becoming permanent in the Village; constructions resistant to change and tied back to some moment in history to prevent any alterations are seen on practically every block of the neighborhood.
However, some time shortly after Washington Square Arch was constructed, the rise of the automobile enticed the primarily wealthy residents of the post-cholera epidemic Village to move towards the suburbs up north, making prices across Manhattan drop significantly. As such, a new era consisting of poor artists and visionaries occupying the now-empty spaces arrived in Greenwich Village. The bohemian movement, as it came to be known, began its early stages, defining Greenwich Village for years to come.
Washington Square Park itself is also home to many of the artistic elements Greenwich Village became known for. A short walk through the shaded area reveals artists young and old playing music, selling art, or writing poems. The guide chuckled as we passed by, and remarked that these creatives most certainly do not actually live within the Village, as was likely the case during the peak of the neighborhood’s bohemianism revolution. When asked about this comment, the guide pointed to the stereotypical current Village resident: an educated professional with large amounts of disposable income, presumably a far cry from the reality these artists we saw lived.
The Non-Wealthy Residents of Greenwich Village: Demographic Analysis
As the 1890s progressed following the construction of Washington Square Arch, Greenwich Village experienced a consequential demographic shift. An economic depression, desire for suburbia among those with capital (often referred to as the bourgeoisie class in historical context), and lower rents as a result of property abandonment all contributed to this marked change. The Village’s picturesque serenity and ornate architecture had deteriorated, with what remained transforming into tenements and cobbled-together gathering spaces, including brothels, for the new, lower-income generation (Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture 93). While the outward appearances of the neighborhood fell by the wayside, what followed was perhaps the true birth of the Village as a cultural phenomenon. While wealthy residents laid the groundwork of charm through architecture, it was arguably the new lower-income inhabitants that transformed Greenwich Village into a desirable outpost for many.
“Little Africa” and Cultural Development
In the work “Crossroads or Settlement?,”published in the anthology Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture, Thelma Wills Foote provides insight into the history of Black residents in the neighborhood before a mass-exodus of wealthy whites, and even predating the original influx of wealthy residents in the 1820s. New York’s legislation permitting ‘gradual emancipation’ of enslaved persons beginning in 1799 attributed to the movement of Black residents living in their enslaver’s homes, primarily in the southernmost regions of Manhattan, towards Greenwich Village (Foote 125). It can be reasonably argued that for many Black freedmen, the movement to Greenwich Village was not because of locational desire, but out of necessity for survival based on the relative affordability. This cost (though still too high in many circumstances) can be credited to the primarily wealthy land-controlling Village residents seeking extra money via renting places in abysmal, borderline unlivable conditions. As discussed previously, the cholera epidemic and other illnesses soon spread to the southern regions of Manhattan, driving more wealthier New Yorkers to settle in Greenwich Village after hastily displacing many of the Black residents.
However, before the majority of Black residents were forcibly displaced by fleeing whites, Black Village residents significantly contributed to much of what the neighborhood later came to be known for, including a rich artistic history and ‘counterculture’ institutions in response to discrimination. Examples of this can be seen in the establishment of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church after Black residents were not allowed entry into white-controlled houses of worship. These new institutions were often located close to the homes of Black residents, a small enclave later referred to as “Little Africa.” Though limited by discrimination and white supremacists in control of much of the Village, these properties were not adhering to strict zoning policies. Here, the very lack of strict zoning restrictions actually contributed to the desirability of the Village for Black residents. The Presbyterian church’s founder, Samuel Cornish, also went on to create the Freedom’s Journal newspaper, the first Black newspaper in the United States (Berman 7). Other Black-operated newspapers were also established during this time period, many of which served as outlets of communication to other Black residents, as well as a means to logistically coordinate protests in the overwhelmingly wealthy, white Greenwich Village (Foote 130). It is reasonable to conclude that the bohemian movement took from the efforts of Black Greenwich Village residents attempting to cement themselves as genuinely belonging to the neighborhood (even physically via new buildings)–especially at a time of intense discrimination–through the creation of these institutions.
Rejection of Tradition: The Bohemians
The book The Improper Bohemians lays out Greenwich Village’s desirability and reason for the mass movement of creatives to the neighborhood. Author Allen Churchill writes “New York’s district below Fourteenth Street… was ideal in atmosphere, low rents, and general stimulus, as a location for America’s citadel of Bohemia…” (25). As such, bohemians soon made their mark on the Village with their talents, virtually unrestricted by the financial burdens of high rents or mortgages. Consequently, as Professor Lewis Erenberg points out, Greenwich Village was a metropolitan nightlife “amusement zone” by the early 1920s (Village Nightlife 358). The bohemians continued to produce art and offer their talents and services for sale throughout the 1920s in makeshift businesses often operated in people’s homes, something current zoning restrictions would hardly allow. What followed, however, was a gradual decline of Greenwich Village’s heyday, as profit-seeking individuals realized the potential of the creative, intellectual hotspot.
Gentrification Takes Shape
Greenwich Village today is far from–as a 1914 edition of the New York Tribune described–the “failures, strivers, thinkers, [and] idealists” who once inhabited it. As median rent prices soar across all of Manhattan, residents of Greenwich Village are hit particularly hard because of the neighborhood’s essentially inalienable zoning structure. In 2017, journalist Jan Benzel interviewed one long-time resident who expressed concern about the increased cost of living. “‘There is no average price in the Village,’ Ms. Blumstein said. The median sales price for a studio in May 2017 was $570,000; a 16,650-square-foot mansion on West 10th Street is currently listed for $59.5 million” (Benzel 15). When listening to Blumstein and examining what has become of the Village, it becomes rather clear that developers have no financial incentive to create affordable places to live within the neighborhood, and in fact, thrive off of the ability to gatekeep the masses from calling the Village home. This phenomenon is not new, and some of the original free-spirited residents who occupied the Village publicly expressed their distaste for the rapidly changing demographics of the neighborhood they called home. This can be seen in a Marian Hale’s newspaper article from 1921 describing bohemian residents fleeing:
For the passing of Greenwich Village is almost accomplished. The sound of dancing feet is stilled and the buoyant artists sing no more. The tea rooms are empty, save for a few sad uptowners, who came to catch the bird only to find it flown. And where have they flown to, these delightful bohemians? Where but to Paris! (The Bismarck Tribune 2)
In this rather eloquently written excerpt, the main draw of Greenwich Village, the people, has already died, leaving a dim shadow of the bohemian movement that was once so vibrant. Long before this, however, inklings of the true extent of gentrification began to emerge in the Village.
Whispers of the Death of Bohemia: The Rise of the Landlord
As is understandably the case for a neighborhood priding itself on going against traditional business and life in a capitalist society, the meaningful profitability of the Village was slim. Resulting from this, a few wealthier individuals who still remained in the neighborhood grew concerned about the future of the Village, and worked to soften some of the rougher edges of bohemia’s impact. “Under the banner of the Greenwich Village Improvement Society,” author Jan Ramirez writes, “… although an immediate goal was to improve neighborhood street lighting, pavements, and playgrounds, their ultimate purpose was to reinstate higher-income-level families and young professionals in the Village to stimulate its economy” (The Tourist Trade Takes Hold 389). This is an outright description of gentrification. Implications of these alliances’ efforts can be seen through landlord Vincent Pepe, who worked to restore some of the more ornate details of Greek Revival architecture that had deteriorated after the movement of wealthier individuals in the 1890s. Pepe also worked to merge apartments together, creating high-end single-family homes along streets like Minetta Lane (Gray 9). Even though Pepe was actively destroying the true bohemian history of the Village, the current historic district classification and zoning policies make any revisions to Pepe’s alterations virtually impossible.
Ironically, attempts to make Greenwich Village economically viable as a profitable community are exactly contrary to why even the earliest wealthy residents of the Village were attracted to the space. Financial tycoons knew that the “peculiar street system inhibited circulation” and “limited its commercial appeal” (Bender 32). After all, these residents wanted a break from the chaos of the Financial District. To preserve the attempts to commercialize the Village (as done through the 1979 historic district declaration) illustrates the failure of zoning as a means of genuine ‘preservation,’ instead only upholding the desires of profit-driven individuals determined to suppress the counterculture ideals of the neighborhood. Statistical research has been done on the immense profit potential property owners have when their neighborhood is designated as a historic district. Authors Brian McCabe and Ingrid Ellen concluded that poverty rates decreased in New York City neighborhoods after they have been declared historic districts. Specifically, they found a regression of between two and four percent post-historic declaration (140-141). Consequently, living in Greenwich Village has become less of a cultural, artistic ideal, and more so a calculated investment opportunity. Wealthy inhabitants seek to ensure the viability of their land holdings by upholding the historic district’s footprint, leaving the chances of residents with low-income to move beyond renting slim, and the possibility of being displaced high.
The Inherent Contradiction of Zoning: NYU Land Acquisition and Single-Family Homes
So much of what defines Greenwich Village’s charm is tied to the neighborhood’s many parks and public spaces. Washington Square Park’s popularity rose in part due to New York University’s nearby location, making the public space a hub for intellectual and cultural exchange. Looking for a more permanent home to host classes, the university purchased a portion of the eastern block facing the park and erected their first campus building in 1835 (NYU 4). What has transpired since, however, has stifled Greenwich Village’s capacity for true public gathering. According to Mike Vilensky’s Wall Street Journal article from 2015, the New York Court of Appeals approved a roughly 2 million square foot addition to New York University’s total land holdings in Greenwich Village. The plan involved privatizing previously public parkland, and erecting a high rise building for students and faculty. While some may argue that the educational benefits outweigh the loss of parkland in the Village, NYU’s expansion becomes worrisome when examining the power one institution has over an entire neighborhood, specifically in regards to zoning policy. The expansion approved in 2015 (and currently nearing completion) came with controversy, with Vilensky stating “NYU’s expansion plan was first approved by the New York City Council in 2012 but has since come under fire by locals, politicians and even NYU professors, who have said it misuses public space” (3). Even though there has been backlash, the end result still demonstrates how zoning, even in a historic district, can be used by those with capital to achieve what they desire. In most cases in Greenwich Village, the desire is private property.
Current zoning fails Greenwich Village by also allowing for multi-family homes to be combined into larger, single-family dwellings. By doing so, opportunities for those unable to afford to purchase a home outright are reduced, and the actual quantity of living opportunities in historic Greenwich Village decreases. A recent example of this can be found in a home listing, plainly describing what zoning catered to the wealthy allows in the Village:
133-135 West 13th Street offers the most discerning purchaser a chance to combine two grand Greek Revival townhouses… to create an over 15,000 square foot home in the heart of Greenwich Village. (Garfield 1)
Unsurprisingly, the homes cost over $17 million. Viewing this information in conjunction with data regarding public housing in Greenwich Village highlights the priorities of current zoning. While all available data from 2002 onward consistently shows zero public housing units in Greenwich Village (in comparison to the neighboring Lower East Side 14,856 units), the number of rent regulated units has ultimately decreased from 19,397 in 2002 to 13,327 in 2017, with a 2,232 decrease in units since 2014 alone (Keeping Track Online). With prevention of new multi-use, low-income developments in the Village and increased privatization, it is certain that this trend will continue.
Concluding Thoughts and the Death of Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village thrived as the neighborhood transformed from a colonial outpost with charming architecture and public space into a collective of residents opposed to the social norm. What you have now, however, is not a physical division based on ideology, where Greenwich Village lay separated from the commercialized downtown with status-quo-appeasing folk. Now, it is the capital owners versus the reluctant capital seekers; the ones who manage versus the ones who are managed; the rich versus the poor. In some respects, we might think of this divide in terms that recall a past era: there are capital owners and there are bohemians. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are difficult to mix in a profit-driven culture fueled through the commodification of art. Living in Greenwich Village is a matter of the haves and the have-nots, where the latter are shunned away through inequitable zoning laws whose terms like ‘historical preservation’ and ‘protection’ of ‘character’ veil a desire to protect the neighborhood’s uncharacteristically affluent resident majority. The historic zoning district classification perpetuates gentrification, and tarnishes Greenwich Village’s legacy and ability for non-wealthy individuals and families to live within the neighborhood.
The Village, however, holds potential that should excite those looking to make the neighborhood a more equitable place to live. In the article “Capitalist Urban Planning Policies Cause Gentrification,” Valerie Schloredt discusses potential solutions to the problem of displacement within cities. Schloredt mentions MIT professor Lawrence Vale’s proposition, writing “one solution could be to increase public housing that is funded and run properly, rather than allowing it to degrade and be demolished to make way for private development” (17). In the context of Greenwich Village, this could be accomplished with the New York City government acquiring larger single-family homes or luxury apartment complexes and co-ops, transforming them into low-cost apartments for residents. In doing so, the diversity of Greenwich Village would increase significantly, and the exchange of ideas, art, and knowledge so common in the bohemian era could be restored. It is also important to analyze the complexities of New York City’s housing agencies and perhaps find ways one can work within the existing system to challenge the harmful consequences perpetuated by certain zoning policies in the Village. Another idea was proposed in Brian J. McCabe and Ingrid Gould Ellen’s analysis paper “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change?” with the researchers suggesting that preservation officials work with affordable housing agencies and assess the impacts of historic declaration on existing low-income populations (11). This proposal, however, falls short of absolutely ensuring displacement in historic districts does not occur, and more comprehensive considerations are needed. Perhaps combining the efforts of preservation officials and affordable housing agencies with the city government’s power to own residential property would be even more impactful in reducing the harmful impacts of historic zoning. Examination of current available statistics and investment in future research regarding incomes, home prices, and other demographic data would also be beneficial in addressing gentrification in Greenwich Village and historic districts in New York City. For example, the assessment of the racial breakdown in NYC historic districts by McCabe and Ellen provides useful insight into the limitations of a historic district declaration’s impact on neighborhood change (142). For future analysis, examination of other factors that contribute to demographic shifts within historic districts could be considered.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that stringent zoning, especially the classification of a historic district, contributes to gentrification in Greenwich Village. In order to more comprehensively understand this phenomenon, further research is required, especially elaborating on Greenwich Village alliances focusing on ‘preservation’ at all costs, like Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. If complete privatization of residences remains in the Village for the time being, as is likely, short term solutions such as relaxing zoning policies to divide single-family property into multi-family units is necessary. Gentrification can be prevented only if private individuals, institutions, and governments become accepting of the idea of publicly-owned residences.
Bender, Thomas. “Washington Square in the Growing City” Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. Edited by Rick Beard and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
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Garfield, Leslie J. “133-135 West 13th St, New York, NY, 10011: Greenwich Village.” 133-135 West 13th St, New York, NY, 10011 | Greenwich Village, https://lesliegarfield.com/properties/new-york/sale/133-135-west-13th-street.
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McCabe, Brian J., and Ingrid Gould Ellen. “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 82, no. 2, 2016, pp. 134–146., https://doi.org/10.1080/01944363.2015.1126195.
Ramirez, Jan Seidler. “The Tourist Trade Takes Hold” Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. Edited by Rick Beard and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Schloredt, Valerie. “Capitalist Urban Planning Policies Cause Gentrification.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2022. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/HGOZVS505356600/OVIC?u=nysl_me_fordham&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=5c68458e. Originally published as “Antidotes to Gentrification,” Yes! Magazine, 19 Feb. 2021.
Vilensky, Mike. “City News: Court Upholds NYU Expansion Plan.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed., Jul 01 2015, ProQuest. Web.
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About the Author
Garrett Kolson is a sophomore at Fordham College Lincoln Center with an intended major in Political Science. Currently on the Pre-Law track, he hopes to attend law school to prepare for a future career in social advocacy. Garrett enjoys exploring New York City and trying his hand at film photography.