Places that Matter

555 Hudson Street

click on image for slideshow
photo by Jeff Kasper
photo by Jeff Kasper
photo by Nathalie Barton
Former residence of author and activist Jane Jacobs
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Jeff Kasper
555 Hudson Street is the former residence of author and activist Jane Jacobs (May 1916-April 2006). Jacobs is most well 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’ plans to tear down parts of Greenwich Village to make room for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX).
Jacobs referred to her residence on Hudson Street 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 lived here from 1947 to 1968. In the late 1940’s, Jacobs began to renovate her house in what was then a shabby neighborhood, while she and her husband raised their children. Later, the family moved to Toronto to protect their sons from the Vietnam War draft. 555 is may not actually be where Jacobs wrote Death and Life. Historian Peter Laurence has debunked the myth, describing the studio around the corner where Jacobs wrote in peace. Nonetheless, 555 is important to Jacobs’ understanding of urban life because it was the site of her physical connection to Greenwich Village and New York City. Jacobs’ experience living in this type of urban setting helped to crystallize her perspective on how cities work and how they should be organized. Her empirical observations of what makes cities thrive, many made while living on Hudson Street, later became integral concepts to contemporary urban thought.
Immediately after Death and Life was published, Jacobs was criticized for her lack of experience or education in the field of urban planning. She was wrongfully depicted 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” (Henry VIII reference.)But Jacobs wasn’t the demure housewife that critics portrayed. 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. In effort to counter the housewife characterization, Jacobs claimed that she rarely witnessed the street-ballet immortalized in Death and Life because she worked outside of the home for most of the day. A journalist and editor for periodicals such as Amerika Illustrated and Architectural Forum, Jacobsused her skills as a writer to address controversial public issues.When Death and Life was published, Jacobs obscured her formerly pro-renewal stance so that readers would not associate her beliefs with the beliefs of many of her colleagues. Jacobs advocated for architectural re-use, community participation and collaboration, and family/community centric planning and development. While not explicitly or exclusively “feminist,” these contrasted heavily with the patriarchal, “planner knows best” modernist approach.
Organized complexity, so dubbed by Jacobs, was highly apparent during the time she spent on Hudson Street. The intermixing of different people and activities, at different times of day – a constant flux of diversity – was what Jacobs would cite as the lifeblood of thriving neighborhoods. Urban renewal, the practice of down the old “slums” and building anew, threatened this observed vitality at the time of Jacobs’ writing Death and Life. Through her advocacy, Jacobs and allied thinkers have persuaded subsequent generations of planners and urbanists that urban renewal  is not the right way to go. In the late 1960sm Jacobs successfully co-lead opposition to a redevelopment plan for the West Village that would have dropped an expressway right through the community and its historic fabric. Although Jacobs may have saved the Village from complete physical destruction, Hudson Street’s former small businesses and working class families are recently in competition with designer boutiques and the wealthy urbanites.
555 is located on the west side of Hudson Street, between Perry Street and West 11th Street. The block is comprised of low-rise vernacular buildings, most of which were 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 are mixed-use, containing storefront retail spaces, corner and sidewalk cafes, and bars. Other than 555, 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 and the first cover of Death and Life featured a photograph of Jacobs 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 residential 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 a modest building. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century in the tradition of nineteenth century row houses, which make up a large portion of the fabric of the West Village. Historically, this building typology was 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 Street, offered a close view of the community -- built in security carried out by neighbors, or the “eyes on the street” effect that Jacobs made famous in Death and Life. The building arrangement of Hudson Street, including Jacobs’ former home, together exemplify human-scale urban design. To this day, the assemblage stands in stark, victorious contrast to the “towers in the park,” urban renewal strategies that Jacobs condemned in her writing and activism.  

(May 2013)