Friday, September 5, 2008

Don't Do It!

The studio of the artist Arnold Bergier, at Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street,
which was demolished in 1960 to make way for a 14-story building
(despite the painted entreaties). Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah.

We talk about the worth of historic preservation. Its value to American cities is inestimable. However, it is sometimes difficult to explain the complexity of its effect. This coverage of a Vanity Fair article via helps to demonstrate this thinking. It is a colorful read, describing "a place, a mood, a way of life." The cohesion of the architecture of place is essential to a sense of place.
In last month's Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens considers the importance of urban "Bohemias" and why the ultimate demolishment/development of New York's Greenwich Village is a very, very sad thing. From the essay:
It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who to his last days lent the patina to the Saint-Germain district of Paris, just as it is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, last of the Beats, who by continuing to operate his City Lights bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach still gives continuity with the past.

In aspect and design, New York’s West Village is the opposite of Soho in London in that it began its existence before the famous evolution of Manhattan as a grid had taken shape. As Malcolm Cowley phrased it, evoking the Village just after the First World War, “Most of us drifted to Manhattan to the crooked streets south of Fourteenth, where you could rent a furnished hall-bedroom for two or three dollars weekly.… We came to the Village … because living was cheap, because friends of ours had come already … because it seemed that New York was the only city where a young writer could be published.” Trying to sum up the ethos, Cowley wrote that for his generation the Village was something more than “a place, a mood, a way of life: Like all bohemias, it was also a doctrine.”

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