What Is New York City Without Its Historic Buildings?

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Real estate interests are buying up historic buildings around Union Square and forcing New York City’s psychotherapists to move all over Manhattan, or leave for other boroughs. This is the city’s new tech corridor. At The New York Review of Books, Jeremiah Moss eulogizes the passing of his office building, the 165-year-old St. Denis. The St. Denis once housed hundreds of psychotherapists. Moss is now one of two dozen remaining. The building is threatened with demolition, and the district’s larger shift threatens its very identity.

Moss chronicles his building’s long life, in order to show that when a city loses a building, it loses all the lives and eras that imprinted themselves on that building. As he puts it, “Imagine a future Manhattan without shrinks. What will happen to the psyche of that city?” The same goes for a future Manhattan without the physical embodiment of its history. “This is not just a building,” said one tenant. “It was a cohesive community.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is advocating for a zoning to protect the area and its architectural jewels. “The Tech Hub is accelerating the changes,” he told me. What’s coming, he says, are more “high-end high-rise developments—condos, hotels, and tech office buildings.” And there is no limit to how high they can go, thanks to a current zoning that Berman says is “very generous to developers.”

Whatever protections may come, they will not save the St. Denis as it is. Like almost all of the nineteenth-century buildings in the neighborhood, it isn’t landmarked, and the area around it is not protected as a Historic District. Almost every building, from the Romanesque masterpiece at 841 Broadway to the Gothic gem at 808, can be smashed into dust. If that happens, people will talk about how “New York is always changing,” but this change will be different.

“This neighborhood has changed and adapted many times over the generations,” said Berman. “It was a fashionable district, then a honky-tonk entertainment area, and then a center for the art world. It has seen many lives, but most of those changes relied on the adaptive reuse of the existing buildings and moved at a moderate pace of change. The type of change we’re seeing now is unprecedented in the neighborhood’s history, and would erase all the layers that have accumulated over the generations.”

Read the story