Proposed public plaza at Cooper Square

Astor Place in NYC to Lose Native American Roots?

ICTMN Staff
2/5/11

Joey Arak of Curbed writes about New York City's plan to redesign Astor Place and Cooper Square in lower Manhattan, with the plans submitted by WXY architecture + urban design calling for the removal of Astor Place between Lafayette and Fourth Avenue.  Arak reports that the issue is that the section of Astor Place the design calls for removing happens to follow the path of an old Indian Trail that appears on maps that date back to 1639. As Arak reports, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) wrote in a letter to the city's Design Review Commission that this would remove "some of the only reminders of the Native American settlement and Dutch New York."  The most compelling component of WXY's plan, a pedestrian plaza surrounding the Alamo sculpture, what Arak calls The Cube, that sits at the foot of the Sculpture for Living Condo tower, all falls atop the historic Native American path.

WXY is not ignorant of this fact, and have designed into their plan a winding path buffeted by trees that memorializes the old trail, but the question is, is that enough?  These streets WXY has suggested that need to be removed are "some of the oldest and most historically significant in the city," the GVSHP notes on their website, and they go on to mention how one of the things that make Astor Place so iconic is, frankly, how out of whack it is with the rest of the island of Manhattan north of Houston street, as it's the only true East-West street on the entire island, and further more, creates a wonderful, if not slightly discombobulating, hodgepodge of jagged streets running this way and that in the midst of the mostly logical grid of the rest of the numbered streets in the city.

As Justin Davidson of New York Magazine explained back in 2008, the nutty nature of the current Astor Place is both architectural and directional.  Davidson notes how Astor Place's current "odd-angled intersection"  is a "dose of weirdness."  On paper, Astor Place's geography is as follows: it's a two-block street that runs from Broadway, right below East 8th Street, through Lafayette Street, past Cooper Square and Fourth Avenue, and then ends at Third Avenue and St. Marks Place.  This does nothing, of course, to explain what Astor Place is actually like, an area of architectural irreconcilability and discordant neighborhoods brushing up against one another.  "It's the messy, odd-angled intersection where Astor Place swerves into East 8th Street to form the tattoo-parlor boulevard of St. Marks PLace, and where fourth avenue sprouts an offshoot in Lafayette Street.  The snarl creates a plaza of sorts, and several shard-shaped blocks," Davidson writes.  The area is at once collegiate feeling (NYU), grungy (St. Marks), business-y and busy (the Astor Place subway stop is central for millions of commuters) and confusing. As for the discordant architecture, Davidson writes about the "bulky brown Foundation Building of Cooper Union...cast iron façades garlanded with putti and cockle shells, an aspiring Parisian hôtel particulier with a Gallic mansard roof, and the copper-domed Ukrainian church built in 1976." On top of all of this, you had the infiltration of Starbucks and other modern storefronts, completing the clashing nature of a historic section of the city seemingly at aesthetic war with itself.

The plan for the new Astor Place is undeniably ambitious and with merits.  You can see the designs on the Architect's Newspaper, which describes WXY's design: "The project area includes the two plaza segments at Astor Place, Cooper Square, the areas south to 3rd Street, and all sidewalks connecting them. Arguably the biggest change will be the closure of Astor Place itself to traffic, creating a large plaza in front of the Gwathmey Seigel–designed mirrored condominium building. This plaza, which contains the famous Tony Rosenthal sculpture Alamo—colloquially known as “The Cube”—will be left largely open, but the plaza’s surface will be subtly contoured to direct rainwater into a bio-swale and stand of trees at the southern end of the plaza. The Cube will be moved about six feet westward to create a new view corridor."

Admittedly, this sounds pretty cool.  Yet eliminating any trace of historic areas of the city such as Astor Place and Stuyvesant street has upset many.  The GVSHP reached out to the Department of Transportation and urged them to include some kind of preservation of the historic streetscapes, mentioning specifically how they date back to Dutch and, before them, Native American settlement of Lower Manhattan.

In a nice turn of events, the DOT wrote to the Public Design Commission, who must review and approve all aspects of the plan.  The commission held a meeting on January 31st, and, citing the letter from the GVSHP, questioned the DOT about the lack of integration of the Astor and Stuyvesant Street patterns into the design.  Now a public hearing on the plan is being scheduled in the coming weeks.

A little history lesson for you:

Astor Place was named for John Jacob Astor, who was once the richest man in the country, and who passed away in 1848.  Cooper Square is named after Peter Cooper, the 19th century philanthropist and industrialist, who broke ground for Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in 1853.  Astor Place once held the Astor Opera House, and was the site for the Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849, which was more then tripled the death toll of the Boston Massacre, and involved similar anti-British sentiment (79-years later, no less), only this melee involved a rivarly between an American actor, Edwin Forest, and an English actor, William Charles Macready, who happened to both be presenting versions of Macbeth in nearby theaters.  This was during the height of the potato famine, when New York's Irish were at the very pinnacle of their hatred for the British, so a protest in the streets that comprise Astor Place and Cooper Union erupted and became so violent that the police fired into the crowd and killed eighteen people, while hundreds more were injured.

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