Places that Matter

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555 Hudson St.

by Nathalie Barton
by Nathalie Barton
Former residence of author and activist Jane Jacobs
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

555 Hudson Street is the former residence of author and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). Jacobs is most known for her first groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which opposed the widely accepted urban planning practices of slum clearance and urban renewal. Jacobs is famous for her advocacy of community-based planning and organizing, and is praised for her successful opposition of Robert Moses and his plans to tear down parts of Greenwich Village to make room for the Lower Manhattan Crosstown Expressway.

Jacobs referred to her residence several times in Death and Life, most memorably when she described the “sidewalk ballet” and “eyes on the streets” in the three chapters, “The Uses of Sidewalks: safety,” “The Uses of Sidewalks: contact,” and “The Uses of Sidewalks: assimilating children.”  Hudson Street was an important reference point for her urban observations. Jacobs had lived here from 1947 to 1968. In the late 1940’s Jacobs began to renovate a house in a shabby neighborhood, while she and her husband raised their children, until the family moved to Toronto to protect their sons from the draft during the Vietnam War. 555 is not necessarily where Jacobs wrote Death and Life. Historian Peter Laurence has debunked this myth, describing the studio around the corner where Jacobs wrote in peace. Nonetheless 555 is a far more important place because it was the site of her physical connection to Greenwich Village and New York City. Jacobs’s experience of living in this type of urban setting crystalized her perspective on how cities work and how they should or should not be organized. Her empirical observations of what makes cities thrive later became integral concepts to contemporary urban thought.

Immediately after Death and Life was published, Jane Jacobs was often criticized for her lack of experience or education in the field of urban planning. She was wrongfully coined as a nagging housewife, most popularly in Lewis Mumford’s essay, “Home Remedies for Urban Cancer,” first published in The New Yorker in 1962. Other planners insidiously referred to her as “Lady Jane” (Que. the Henry VIII reference.) But Jacobs really wasn’t the demure housewife that critics simplified her as. She was a mother as well as a white collar middle-class working woman, a powerhouse example of women’s liberation and second wave feminism. Jacobs, a journalist and editor for periodicals such as Amerika Illustrated and Architectural Forum, used her skills as a writer to address controversial public issues. She obscured her previous associations at the time of publishing Death and Life, in order to hide her past pro-renewal stance and to avoid readers associating her beliefs with the beliefs of her colleagues. A powerful illustration of being wrongly associated as a housewife comes from Jacobs herself; she actually claimed that she rarely witnessed the street-ballet immortalized in Death and Life, because for most of the day she worked outside the home.

When looking at Jacobs as a pivotal thinker in contemporary urban planning, we should also consider her as an advocate for a feminist view of urban life and design. Paradigms that Jacobs advocated for, architectural re-use, community participation and collaboration, and family/community centric planning and development, may be thought of as feminist approaches versus the patriarchal, “planner knows best” approach of modernism.

Organized complexity, as Jacobs called it, was highly apparent to her during the time she spent on Hudson Street. The intermixing of different people, different activities, at different times – a constant flux of diversity – was what Jacobs would cite as the lifeblood of thriving neighborhoods. Urban renewal threatened this vitality at the time of her writing Death and Life – that scary phenomena of tearing down the old “slums” and building new, that Jacobs and allied thinkers have persuaded us to believe is not the right way to go. In the late 1960s Jacobs successfully co-lead opposition to the redevelopment of the West Village, that would have dropped an expressway right through the hood. Although Jacobs may have made the Village safe from the ripping down of history, the authenticity and diversity of Hudson Street and the Village as a whole is only a distant memory, as it is a recent commercial hotbed of designer boutiques and the wealthy urban elite.

555 Hudson Street is located on the west side of the street, between Perry Street and West 11th Street. The block is composed of low-rise vernacular buildings. The buildings are estimated to have been constructed between 1900 and the late 1940’s. Many, although not all are row houses that have been altered over time to include uses other than residential. Almost all of the buildings (on the east and west sides of the street) are mixed-use containing storefront retail spaces, corner and sidewalk cafes, and bars. Other than this house, the most notable place in this stretch of Hudson is White Horse Tavern, located on the southwest corner of Hudson and West 11th. White Horse was a magnet for Greenwich Village working men and intellectuals alike – in the mid to late twentieth century. Jacobs patronized White Horse; the first cover of Death and Life was a photo of her sitting at the bar.

555 Hudson St. is a red brick, three-story, mixed-use, townhouse. The ground level includes a storefront retail space, and an outdoor patio in the back, with a separate entry and stair for the resident unit upstairs. The second and third floors make up a singular residential unit, including on the second floor a kitchen, guest bathroom and living space, and on the third, two bedrooms and a full bath. The back of the third level also connects to a recently added outdoor deck. There is a basement, which is used as storage for the storefront.

555 Hudson is an ordinary and modest building. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century in the tradition of nineteenth century row houses which make up the fabric of the West Village. This type of building was typically home to one or more families on the upper floors, and a business at ground level. Arrangements such as this, allowed for the intermingling of people at different times of the day and night. Twenty Four hour use of the street for residents and visitors, in combination with the three to six story nature of the buildings of Hudson St., offered a close view of the street producing built in security carried out by neighbors – the “eyes on the street” effect that Jacobs made famous in Death and Life. The building arrangement of Hudson Street exemplifies human-scale urban design. A stark contrast to the “towers in the park” approach akin to mid twentieth century urban renewal strategies that Jacobs condemned in her writing and activism.