West Village writer and activist Jane Jacobs engaged local independent media outlets like the Village Voice to help preserve sizeable swaths of the downtown landscape, allowing people to transform largely abandoned industrial areas into places to live and make art.
Throughout the 1960s, many bohemians moved away from Greenwich Village to an area that became known as SoHo (short for South of Houston, the street that borders the Village, which lies to the north). The average cost of a Manhattan apartment in 1960 was $78 per month, whereas SoHo lofts in the 1960s ranged from $50 to $125 for quite large spaces—and the fact that the artists’ studios also doubled as their homes lowered the overall costs even more. In addition to artist residences and galleries, these lofts were used to stage innovative performance-based art that ranged from experimental dance to the “loft jazz” scene. Jane Jacobs’s vision of a mixed-use downtown was the very thing that attracted so many outsiders, but SoHo would never have developed the way it did if Robert Moses had prevailed. His Lower Manhattan Expressway was set to cut a wide path across the borough, running east and west through Broome Street, in the heart of SoHo, which certainly would have stymied the neighborhood’s economic rebirth. In late 1968, Paula Cooper opened the first SoHo art gallery at 96 Prince Street, and next came OK Harris Gallery at 465 West Broadway. A decade later, seventy-seven galleries had been drawn to the neighborhood, where many artists lived and created their works. Its large, open lofts were supported by cast-iron columns that offered more spatial flexibility than the cramped tenement apartments on the Lower East Side—a plus for artists who created large-scale works or those who needed more room for performances.
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the battle to save Washington Square Park reached its peak in 1958, Jacobs used print media to her advantage. She wrote about architecture in magazines and newspapers before authoring The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that revolutionized the field of urban planning. “Jane and I both despised Moses as an ignorant, petty tyrant who used federal funds to finance his insane projects and seduce politicians, a familiar story,” said Random House editor Jason Epstein, who commissioned the book. “He had been most destructive in poor neighborhoods whose residents were mostly passive.” Moses’s typical strategy was to bulldoze a site in the early morning and confront residents with a fait accompli when they woke up. Fortunately, Jacobs had already learned an important tactic from a neighborhood group that successfully blocked Moses’s attempt to expand a parking lot for the fancy Tavern on the Green restaurant. Mothers and small children arrived at midnight to block the bulldozers that came to raze the park an hour later. “This inspired the mothers of Greenwich Village to do the same,” Epstein said, when Moses’s bulldozers arrived at Washington Square Park to clear a path for a Fifth Avenue extension to Broome Street, his Waterloo. Jane organized these “Save the Square” protests from the living room of her family apartment at 555 Hudson Street, where she lived with her husband and three children.
By the late 1950s, city government leaders had written off much of New York City’s downtown as a “blighted” zone, and they targeted some now-iconic areas for demolition. Into the fray stepped a West Village writer named Jane Jacobs, who helped preserve sizeable swaths of the downtown landscape, allowing people to transform largely abandoned industrial areas into places to live and make art. Jacobs’s first foray into activism began when she became aware of a plan hatched by the powerful city planner Robert Moses to put an expressway ramp through the middle of Washington Square Park. He was responsible for the hundreds of miles of expressways and bridges that linked New York City to the national interstate system, so Moses wouldn’t think twice about running a multilane roadway through the center of that beloved park. Jacobs joined the fight after 1956, when a coalition of Village groups formed to oppose Moses’s plans, and she soon took a leadership role, holding meetings at her apartment and organizing at the White Horse. “Jane Jacobs single-handedly saved the Village,” Bibbe Hansen said. “She was an incredible community activist, and she prevented the bulldozers from plowing that place.” Jacobs would go on to be a major thorn in Moses’s side, eventually causing city officials to scuttle his proposal to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have run through SoHo, along Broome Street.