In his poem “One Winter Afternoon,” e.e. cummings describes Eighth Street in Greenwich Village at the “magical hour when is becomes if.” Well, it seems as though Eighth Street has reached that hour once again. The street, which once played a distinct role in Village bohemia, began as a hub for book dealers and fostered the original Whitney Museum. Eventually, the street became a district for shoe stores and edgy fashion anchored by Patricia Field. Field decamped for the Bowery about nine years ago and much of the street has since devolved into a hodgepodge of chain stores and characterless low-end retail.
Recently, NYU commissioned a report on the economy in the Village by the economic consultants Appleseed. The report identified the strip as one of a number of “soft areas where the development of new businesses can be encouraged,” particularly the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
Of course, any development that finds its way onto the street would have to go through a pretty rigorous process. According to City Planning, the maximum height allowance for a street wall would only be 60 feet. Demolition or alteration of an existing building would also have to go through Landmarks. Nevertheless, there are a few nondescript strip mall-type buildings along the corridor that could probably fly through the process.
For some, any report commissioned by NYU must be propaganda for its expansion plans. But even NYU’s biggest detractors acknowledge there’s a problem. “It’s certainly a block that has seen better days,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “I think a lot of people are trying to see it improved, but because it’s in the historic district it’s pretty safe from demolition and destruction.” Though Berman still found the report to be a “bald faced attempt to move forward the NYU agenda.”
“Appleseed was examining the economy of Greenwich Village, we didn’t tell them the specifics of what to examine,” said NYU’s chief spokesperson John Beckman. “The mentions of Eighth Street should not be taken as an indication that NYU would be directly involved in the development of the street.”
Still, one former Eighth Street stalwart isn’t buying it. “This is a bitter subject for Patricia as she was forced to not only close her store on Eighth Street but also leave her home [she was residing on the top floor of the building],” wrote Patricia Field’s spokesperson Dennis Bernard in an email. “In 2002, NYU kicked her out and all the other business followed. NYU killed Eighth Street. This all she has to say about it.”
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