7: Decay and Planning
The fall of Greene Street?
A squatter’s village, or “Packing Box City,” sprouted up in the 1930’s at Houston Street, like in many cities after the Great Depression.
Sperr, Percy Loomis. "Squatters Colony on Houston Street," 1933. New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The garment boom had temporarily made Greene Street a very valuable spot, but by 1920, the market value of a plot on Greene Street was lower than before 1870 and the garment factory days.
Sperr, Percy Loomis. "Squatters Colony on Houston Street," 1933. New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Market Value of Real Estate, Greene Street Block
Urban developers and architects in the 1945 Holden-McLaughlin Plan labeled Greene Street and the SoHo vicinity as an “Obsolete Area.” Their report claims: "None of the present buildings in the block are really worth preserving. This is a clear case calling for complete demolition and complete replacement."
Holden-McLaughlin Plan, 1945. Found in Schwartz, Joel. The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City. Ohio State University Press: 1993, 148.
Beginning in 1951, City Commissioner Robert Moses unveiled plans that proposed to tear down 53 acres of existing buildings, to consolidate 27 village blocks into 10 “superblocks.” The Moses plan would have turned 5th Avenue into a four-lane highway going right through Washington Square Park, cutting SoHo in half and joining with a new “Lower Manhattan Expressway”(LOMEX).
Lower Manhattan Expressway
Clips from Arteries of New York, Encyclopedia Britannica Films, 1941. Public domain footage, found on Internet Archive.
The 1960 version of this plan required the eviction of 800 busineses and over 2,000 families. Alternative designs discussed in the 1960's included housing projects built as compensation to these families, automobile tunnels under the subways, 80-foot-high skyways, and superblocks built more for cars than for people.
LOMEX model, by architect Paul Rudolph. Library of Congress.
I take this occasion to plead for the courageous, clean-cut, surgical removal of all our old slums.... [T]here can be no real neighborhood reconstruction, no superblocks, no reduction of ground coverage, no widening of boundary streets, no playgrounds, no new schools, without the unflinching surgery which cuts out the whole cancer and leaves no part of it which can grow again, and spread and perpetuate old miseries.
- Robert Moses
A 3D map showing the proposed development of the LOMEX, with the Greene Street block marked.
Map by architect Paul Rudolph. Library of Congress.
The blocks surrounding Greene Street may have looked like this...
Rendering of streetscape, LOMEX. Paul Rudolph, 1967. Library of Congress.
The Moses plan mobilized neighborhood resistance.
The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic -- derided by Moses as “a bunch of mothers” -- successfully fought for a ban of automobile traffic through Washington Square Park.

Neighborhood activists then formed The Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The group included Jane Jacobs, the urban activist who gained national attention for her advocacy of mixed-use spaces, high-density neighborhoods, and bottom-up community planning in her book The Death and Life of American Cities in 1961.
Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park, 1963. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images, found in Tablet magazine.
Clips from "Village Sunday, 1960." Public domain, found at Internet Archive
...[T]hat the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact – they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated...As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.
- Jane Jacobs
Jacobs challenged the planning orthodoxy represented by Moses. She offered an alternative vision of the successful city, which she saw as people-friendly places that evolve mostly spontaneously.

In this case, the local resistance won the argument. Robert Moses lost his post in 1968, and in 1969 the LOMEX plan was definitively dead. The Greene Street block survived with its previous building stock untouched.
Jane Jacobs at press conference, 1961. Stanziola, Phil. Library of Congress
Neighborhood activists won against big city planners.
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