Neighborhood Tour: Greenwich Village, 'The Intellectual Capital Of The World'
"New York is heralded as the capital of finance, marketing, fashion and more," New York Historical Tours tour director and historian Kevin Draper says while strolling through Washington Square Park on a crystal clear September afternoon. “But something that’s way down on the list, and hardly ever mentioned, is that it’s the intellectual capital of the world.”
Kevin says that across the five boroughs, New York holds a staggering 105 colleges and universities. The list is highlighted by New York University, Parsons School of Design, St. John’s and Cooper Union, which are mostly in the area surrounding Astor Place and Washington Square Park.
"There’s no other place in the country that has this density of higher learning,” he says, adding that there are more students in NYC than anywhere else in the country.
"That has an impact on everything,” Kevin adds. "It boosts retail. Also, people are renting apartments or buying apartments in areas where the demand might not be as high otherwise.”
While modern Washington Square Park sits in the middle of this thriving real estate hotspot, its beginnings were much humbler.
When the Dutch originally settled downtown New York, the area where Washington Square Park now stands was given to freed slaves. It immediately abutted a barricade that defended the colony from potential Native American attacks.
Eventually, the African-American community moved north, and the stretch of territory transitioned to a potter's field, or mass grave. Kevin says more than 20,000 people are buried beneath Washington Square Park.
As New York continued to progress towards the major metropolis that it is today, the famous Washington Square Arch was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of George Washington being inaugurated as president.
Originally constructed out of wood, the current marble version would later be designed by legendary architect Stanford White. The design is inspired by Paris' Arc de Triomphe (apparently, the irony of an arch designed for conqueror/emperor Napoleon inspiring an arch for one of the fathers of democracy was lost on the builders).
A shift from lumber to a more permanent stone was far from the only change taking place in early Greenwich Village, the home of NYU.
Kevin tells Bisnow that in 1831, NYU decided entrance to the school would be based solely on merit and academic skill rather than financial or social standing. At the time, this concept was revolutionary and caused a seismic shift in access to higher education.
“Nothing worked like that before 1831,” Kevin says. “The school felt that everyone should have access to higher learning. Before this, admissions came down to what family you were born into and whether or not you had money or connections. This was going to change not just New York, but really the whole country.”
As NYU grew, it would temporarily hold a second campus in the Bronx. At the time, the borough north of Manhattan was a very affluent area and the school’s elaborate and ornate campus blended in nicely.
By the '60s, the Bronx was starting a downward spiral. While Greenwich Village was far from the family-friendly, upscale neighborhood it is today, the school would eventually decide to double-down on the lower Manhattan campus and close its Bronx extension.
The decision to invest heavily in the area surrounding Washington Square Park would dramatically change Greenwich Village forever.
BONUS NOTE: Kevin shared with us that his own family played a small but important role in helping to establish this area's rich academic history. The Draper Program, named after Kevin's relative, John W. Draper, is part of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science. It provides a rigorous, interdisciplinary academic curriculum that engages vital contemporary theoretical debates through a focus on critical analysis, comparative research methodologies and effective writing.
Adelaide tells Bisnow that NYU’s significant investment in the neighborhood, and now St. John’s University's at Astor Place, invigorated what was once a gritty section of Manhattan into a welcoming home for an endless supply of students and upscale residents.
She says in the early '70s and '80s, parents often felt uncomfortable sending a child to live on their own in Greenwich Village. She credits NYU's forward thinking and multi-pronged security system for making the streets surrounding Washington Square and the rest of the campus safer for students during any time of day or night.
Safety, restoration and a youthful population—unsurprisingly—led to a healthy climb in demand by residents and retailers. Property values have become so strong that many students forgo dorm living so their families can capitalize on owning their student’s co-op or condo.
“Some parents buy apartments for their children,” Adelaide says while discussing students at NYU or other nearby campuses. “After four years, the apartments have likely appreciated enough to cover the cost of tuition."
While the replenishing flood of students dominates the residential scene, it also has had a marked impact on the retail climate of the neighborhood.
NYU’s buildings are almost entirely surrounded by storefronts that cater to the needs of academics, such as restaurants, coffee shops, gyms, copy centers and office supply shops. Mixed in is a hefty dose of bars—including New York’s oldest pub, McSorley’s Old Ale House—that can thank local students and faculty for a reliable stream of patronage.
While high-end luxury and upscale boutiques may be the exception rather than the norm in this area, the less-flashy alternatives have a built-in customer base that allows them to thrive.
In the heart of Astor Place, inside Cooper Union’s main building, lies The Great Hall. It would be in this auditorium that a young, ex-congressman would give a pivotal address.
“He arrived at South Street Seaport and no one was there to meet him,” Kevin says. "He walks over to The Astor Hotel, which is right next to City Hall. He checks in, and then goes out to buy a new, silk top hat. He then has professional photos taken, as he believes that media will be playing a larger role than ever in political success."
"He is a relative unknown, especially in the northeast," Kevin continues. "He enters The Great Hall and delivers the speech of his life. It focused on slavery and how it must not expand to the new states that were being formed in America at the time. The speech was incredibly well-received by the local papers, who were sure to include the new pictures that the ex-congressman had taken in their write-ups of the address. He became an instant celebrity and earned the Republican nomination for president. The young politician was Abraham Lincoln.”
Kevin says the speech was critical and a necessary step in Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency, and therefore a linchpin to the ending of slavery in America. He also tells Bisnow that Lincoln himself credited his “three days in New York City” with winning him the election.
New York’s concentration of academia in lower Manhattan has certainly given the world an incomparable amount of knowledge and historical value.
It has also given the city a perhaps underappreciated boost in both commercial and residential real estate values. While New York is often celebrated for its ability to attract young talent-who will spend money and need housing-via its booming industries and job opportunities, the schools in the greater Greenwich Village area bring those residents in earlier and at an equally aggressive pace.