Friday, October 1, 2010

Erik Wensberg on Jane Jacobs (2006)

“The audience was filled with citizen soldiers who had fought urban battles with Jane. Erik Wensberg was one of her earliest allies as a founding member with her of the Committee to Save the West Village. A journalist and teacher, Erik was the first to read the manuscript of The Death and Life of American Cities before she submitted it to her editor, Jason Epstein at Random House.” Jane Jacobs: A Public Celebration | More photos from this event

I met her first in January of 1961, when she co-chaired a neighborhood meeting, abruptly called. Completely ordinary, open, and unassuming, she read us a banal bit of boilerplate from the Times, which said that the city would study fourteen blocks in western Greenwich Village with a view to possible urban renewal. Jane patiently explained to us that the so-called study was the opening fraud of a government racket which cleared urban land of buildings and tenants and brought in expensive versions of both, who paid higher taxes. If we liked our friendly, frowzy neighborhood, urban renewal had to be stopped.

By an astounding fluke, Jane had just finished writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This history and critique of modern city planning exposed with candor and force urban renewal nationwide. I was a magazine editor, and Jane asked me to edit her manuscript while she tried to organize the neighborhood. This was but the beginning of her seven-year ordeal as activist, speaker, and organizer wherever needed around New York.

How could she say no? As the chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, she damned well got it stopped. As the first president of the Committee to Save the West Village she saw to it that it was saved within a year.

We, her friends, neighbors, and random volunteers grew sharper by the month. No one who examines the great arc of Jane’s books now talks of the numberless, deadly hearings at City Hall, the dogged subway rides down and back, the forming of alliances with other groups, flyers to be written and handed out. Such was the glamor of being a published author to Jane at first.

It remained for the Committee to Save the West Village, now the triumphant West Village Committee, to build a group of buildings, 420 apartments, subsidized by the state. On little plots of already vacant land, they displaced not a soul but increased our neighborhood’s density, a Good Thing. These buildings we called West Village Houses. You’ll have noticed that there had been no West Village at all until the city decided to tear down western Greenwich Village.

We didn’t win ‘em all. Philip Johnson’s overweening Bobst Library did to Washington Square Park what we said it would. The World Trade Center, no matter the facts on the ground, would lurch toward the sun on account of money and power and dangerous fantasy the likes of which New York had never seen. Our city fathers and mothers often have the dream lives of little boys.

Somewhere in the copious record of our climactic 14-hour hearing on the West Village is a sheet of pictograms by a Chinese philosopher no one has ever heard of. Translated into English and read aloud to the Commission by a Perry Street housewife, it told a fable of a gentle village invaded by pompous dimwits, who are driven out, as indeed were ours. The Chinese philosopher was a jolly Jewish linguist at the UN named Stanley. The white-bread City Planning Commissioners were most impressed with our tony Asian connection, and were never the wiser. As the clerk of the commission solemnly accepted the script, Jane was convulsed with giggles.

—Erik Wensberg, at Jane Jacobs: A Public Celebration, Washington Square Park, New York City, June 28, 2006.

Dear Mr. Wong,

It was kind of you to note with respect the death of my brother, and to think of sending me condolences. He considered himself Jane's protector, her sergeant, and occasionally her henchman. His discovery of her and their shared feelings for the importance of community and neighborhood was an epiphany for him. He continued her work of fostering and rescuing the character of the West Village after she left and for the rest of his life. Erik's connection to Jacques Barzun ultimately brought him acclaim, though no royalties, when he took on the revision of Follett's American Usage at Barzun's request. He continued his correspondence with The Great Man, and by Michael Murray's own admission, was instrumental in the polishing of Barzun's biography. Because Erik had edited chapters over the years, Michael brought him the finished manuscript in the nursing home, and Erik read it before he died last July. Michael and I have corresponded and spoken on the phone; he researched and essentially wrote Erik's obituary, and has been the kindest of friends. Erik had many extraordinary friends.

Erik and I were close and fond siblings, but he was also a very private person and I still learn about different corners of his career in literature and local politics. Living in Los Angeles made it particularly difficult and complex to take care of him over this last year. I am still recovering from that effort myself. Erik's good friend, David Herwaldt, helped enormously to clear his apartment and has taken on the task of being his literary executor. He is seeing to it that Erik's letters and writing will be housed in a university library. As I said, Erik had many extraordinary friends....

Eleanor Pelcyger
Oct. 1, 2010

P.S. First, I never saw the photo of my brother looking so much like his own dad in front of the assembled multitude. Thank you for how nicely it puts Erik in the thick of the tribute. Second, I shall forward this to many of his friends who were miffed at the way the Times ignored his death. It's a lovely speech, isn't it. He not only wrote well, he spoke wonderfully, with a musical voice that reached all corners.

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