A Visit to the NYPL by Ben J

Knowing the the NYPL has the world’s most comprehensive collection of documents pertaining to NYC history, I wanted to dive deeper into understand my house and the West Village, the neighborhood to which I so ardently cling. After Sue and Ian (NYPL staffers and generous souls) presented us with an array of maps and archival documents like insurance policy maps, real estate brochures, and newspapers, I was immediately drawn to the 1969 Urban Plan for Manhattan. Recently, I spent two works researching old urban plans for a housing complex near Washington Square Park. Since I used newspaper archives for most of my research, I never actually got to see the infamous city plans that Robert Moses and the Committee on Slum Clearance created, mandating the renewal of this section of the village. My research was concerned with the village from around 1950 until the last 60s, so the 1969 City Plan seemed like the perfect extension of that research and a way for me to see how the city was thinking about the neighborhood after the project was completed.

I flipped to section two of the book which reported on the West Village, Greenwich Village, and Little Italy (although, admittedly I don’t think it mentioned Little Italy even once). The slum clearance site was marked on each map with a dotted perimeter. But, in perusing the 18-inch square pages of the book, I was drawn more to the way the entire neighborhood was zoned. I found my house in the dense residential area, unsurprisingly, but the entire strip of land next to the Hudson River was zoned as “heavy industrial.” Since I was born, I’ve been going to the Hudson River Park, the promenade and turf-piers that apparently replaced what was once a booming center of industry. Ian informed me that in 1969, the entire Hudson River waterfront landscape was dramatically different. Not only was the pier actually used as a pier for boats and business, but also the West Side Highway was elevated above the ground until a cement truck collapsed part of the structure. Clearly, the waterfront was designed to serve a very different purpose than it does now. The different landscape indicated that the physicality of my neighborhood used to be different, and even more than that, it demonstrated that some 50 years ago, my neighborhood was actually serving a different function than it is now (technically, there area where I live has been residential for a while, so that hasn’t changed, but certainly the actual residents have changed: the people who live here now are not the people who used to live here). What I appreciated most from this peruse, however, was the books description of the character of the West Village: eccentric, charming, and diverse. While I question that last characteristic–given that, according to the guide, was 94% white–, I do appreciate that in 1969, the NYC government saw the same unique nature that I see in my neighborhood, even if that character is slowly, sadly fading away.

Finally, after lunch, I spent time employing the wealth of resources in the Milstein Division to learn as much as I could about my house. I learned that the building was built in 1861 by Albro Howell. Howell built my (more accurately my parents’) house and the identical, adjacent house as part of a speculative development. Howell is more notably remembered for building at 160 E 92 St one of the last wooden homes built in NYC. I learned that Howell also built at least one home on Shelter Island, a place for which I’ve developed an affinity–if not a patriotism–because I (again, more accurately my parents) have a country house there and have been spending summers and weekends there since I was young. I wonder if Howell’s presence has ever or will ever haunt me. With the help of interactive maps and government databases, I learned that I live on block 620, lot 63 of Manhattan, and that in 1987, there was a Department of Buildings violation against my house, but apparently the owner at the time either settled it or it was revoked. In one short visit to the library, I was able to at least double my knowledge of the history of my home (not just including my house, but also my neighborhood and community). As the currently available, limited edition library card boasts, “Knowledge is Power”, so now I’m feeling like a pretty powerful West Villager.

Note: Thank you to Stephen A. Schwarzman for his generous contribution to the library, without which this trip would not have been possible.

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