By Diane WheltonAs the 2012-13 academic year gets under way, more than 40,000 students from all 50 states and 130 foreign countries are attending the graduate and undergraduate schools of New York University. Some of these young scholars will undoubtedly ride to school in upscale cars or limos: a year at NYU with room and board costs almost $70,000, a handsome sum that contributes handsomely to the university's $2.25 billion in annual revenue. Computer printouts in hand, some of the newcomers will follow NYU's online directions and drive down Fifth Avenue to the university's lair in a formerly scenic area of Greenwich Village, one of Manhattan's oldest and most historic neighborhoods. "Fifth Avenue ends at the Washington Square campus," NYU's directions helpfully conclude.
A few students may note that Fifth Avenue does not, in fact, terminate at the NYU campus, but at Washington Square, a public park. However, those who fail to notice this minor detail can be forgiven for assuming that Washington Square belongs to NYU. After years of watching this celebrated park and nearby blocks treated like Monopoly properties by a private corporation cloaked in scholarly robes, more than a few residents of Greenwich Village also mistakenly believe that Washington Square belongs to NYU. And if the university's land grab continues, some day it might.
You can, however, rely on NYU for an accurate early history of the university. Founded in 1831 in lower Manhattan, the university soon moved north to Washington Square, where it competed for space with New Yorkers anxious to build homes facing open land. In 1894, NYU tore down and replaced the crenellated towers of its original building on Washington Square and moved north again, transferring its undergraduate campus to University Heights in the Bronx while its graduate schools remained in Manhattan. NYU continued to expand in both locations, not an easy task for any developer. Manhattan is the smallest county in the United States, and is by far the most densely populated, with nearly 70,000 residents per square mile. Every cubic inch is hotly contested. It was in this confined space that NYU, faced with thousands of WWII veterans attending college under the GI Bill, launched an all-out campaign to convert historic Washington Square into its personal quadrangle.
Getting Rid of Artists and Writers
In September, 1947, the university announced its design for a new law school building on the southwest corner of Washington Square. Their plans, which required the demolition of an entire city block, caused furious protest in the Greenwich Village community. More than 350 painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, composers, dramatists, writers and other artists lived there. These classic Village studios and apartments -known as "Genius Row" -- had been home to such luminaries as Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser and opera star Adelina Patti. Over the years these artists and others had merged the tiny backyards of these buildings to form a large and lovely common garden.
Some 10,000 New Yorkers signed petitions demanding that NYU cease and desist. Why, they asked, would a university theoretically committed to the arts tear down the homes of hundreds of artists? An October, 1947, article in the New York Herald Tribune asked that same question, but noted, "In the face of a studied silence, the university's official attitude is difficult to determine. The deathless corporate entity that is the university can well afford to wait. Those whose lifetimes are short and who cannot afford to wait are now fighting the battle of Washington Square. "
The battle was lost. NYU then, as now, posed as a cultural organization but was in reality a ruthless and unrelenting real estate developer. Out went painters, composers and writers. In came law students. The opposition didn't stand a chance. The land beneath Genius Row was owned by another academic real estate combine, Columbia University, and the fix was in. NYU, spewing deceitful platitudes, pretended it was acting in the public interest. Even as its bulldozers flattened the studios of Genius Row, NYU expressed its "belief" that the evicted artists would eventually come to accept the university's plan "with enthusiasm." The contretemps, NYU hoped, would just be a "tempest in a teapot."
However, both the tempest and the teapot continued to grow over the next ten years, as NYU added more and more Village property to its real estate portfolio. In the 1960s, NYU stepped up its land acquisition program - land on which it pays no taxes -- by taking over an "urban renewal" project in the southeast Village. Hundreds of loft and residential buildings were torn down and public streets eliminated. On two huge superblocks, NYU built a residential complex, a gym, and three 30-story residential towers, which were partially offset by adding open space to the urban landscape.
Controversial in the 1960s, the NYU superblocks are back in the news as the university "that can afford to wait" pushes a massive new expansion plan. Called "NYU 2031" (they're way ahead of us, folks), the proposed development scheme seeks to build on much of the open space that the university reluctantly conceded to the community more than four decades ago. Since the New York City Council has just approved the NYU plan, most of what remains of the Greenwich Village's southern border appears to be doomed.
Nevertheless, opponents of "NYU 2031" are not giving up. The author E.L. Doctorow, who happens to be a professor of English and American Letters at NYU, recently wrote a newspaper piece in which he described the university as "colonizing" Greenwich Village. Doctorow made a point that the defenders of Genius Row made 65 years ago: "At the same time that it has boasted of its connections to the cultural life and history of the Village, it has methodically laid siege to it." Doctorow concluded, "An expanded NYU should not be carved out of the Village heart."
New York University professes not to comprehend why so many community residents simply don't trust them. Perhaps I can explain it to them. In 1974 my family and I moved to Washington Square, directly across the street from the NYU Law School, the place where Genius Row used to be. We lived next door to another NYU building, which was home to the famous Provincetown Playhouse -- a small theater where Eugene O'Neill's early plays were produced. At the time I knew little about NYU's policies toward the community, though I knew they had sold their campus in the Bronx for $62 million and were consolidating their schools and facilities in crowded Manhattan.
I learned more in the 1980s, when I served on Community Board Two, Greenwich Village's advisory panel on local issues. I interacted frequently with NYU and found the university alternately helpful and hostile on matters that affected life in and around Washington Square. For example, the park was being overwhelmed by drug dealers, many of whom were there to serve the illegal needs of NYU students. Time and again I found NYU unresponsive to community efforts to solve the drug problem. Their lack of interest was so striking that I mentioned to Tony Dapolito, longtime chairman of the Village community board, that NYU seemed uninterested in improving the quality of life around Washington Square.
"Why should they want to improve it?" Tony replied. "We asked NYU to reduce the size of its new library on Washington Square. We told them the huge building would cast a deep shadow over a big area of the park in winter, when sunlight is needed most. They said no. After the library was completed, they promised not to build anything else on Washington Square South. They lied about that. I realized they don't care if something makes the community unhappy. A happy community makes real estate values go up. They don't want us to feel at home here. It increases the cost of the properties they want to buy."
Wrecking the Provincetown Playhouse
I was therefore unsurprised when, in 2008, NYU announced that it intended to tear down the Provincetown Playhouse and the building that surrounded it. The usual protestors spoke out angrily, and eventually NYU agreed to save the historic theater's walls, an agreement they promptly broke along with the walls. David Gruber, chair of the Institutions Committee of Community Board Two, said: "If they could move the Temple of Dendur from Egypt to the Metropolitan Museum, I don't see why NYU couldn't preserve four walls of a ninety-year-old theater..." The Provincetown still exists, but without the details that made the playhouse a gem in the world of American theater.
Why does the university behave this way? The answer may lie in its history department. When the robber barons of early industrial America built factories, they often chose locations where company payrolls and political influence gave them de facto control of just about everything. These locations were known as company towns and the company executives were rich and imperious. Decades ago, NYU -- whose president makes $1.3 million a year and whose professors typically earn $250,000 per annum -- set out to make Greenwich Village into a company town, and it has largely succeeded.
Now it's going after bigger game. The apparatus of New York City government has become an arm of NYU's real estate program. The City Council, the Mayor and the State Legislature are easy targets for NYU's large and active force of lobbyists. NYU doesn't make nice with Greenwich Village and the City of New York because it doesn't have to. Its position as one of the largest employers in a city where unemployment is at 10 percent gives it all the leverage it needs.
Diane Whelton lives in New York. The ground beneath her apartment building is owned by NYU.
Cartoon by Karen Leo.