The New School and Village Preservation Honor Greenwich Village’s Social Justice History with Village Voices
In the window of The New School’s 70 Fifth Avenue building is a 20-foot-high installation honoring the early-20th-century civil rights and social justice activism of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. Part of the Village Voices 2022 public outdoor exhibition, presented by Village Preservation, it joins 23 shadowboxes and another interactive installation displayed in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo that celebrate people, places, and moments from the neighborhood’s artistic, social, political, and cultural movements.
“We’re excited to participate in Village Preservation’s Village Voices 2022 exhibition and host an installation at our 70 Fifth Avenue building,” says Tokumbo Shobowale, The New School’s executive vice president for Business and Operations. “This installation—recognizing the social justice and human rights legacy of organizations and individuals who worked in this building during the 20th century—creates an enduring connection with The New School and our mission to educate an engaged citizenry committed to the values of social justice and equality. We’re honored to take part in this incredible exhibition celebrating the artistic, social, political, and cultural movements that have sprung from Greenwich Village—our home for the past 100 years.”
While 70 Fifth Avenue is now home to Parsons School of Design and the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, it has historically been known as the Educational Building. The building has served as the headquarters of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and numerous other progressive, human rights, and civil liberties organizations. The window installation, designed by Penny Hardy, founding principal of the design agency PS New York, features images from the NAACP’s “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag, flown from the building during the organization’s anti-lynching campaign; cover images from the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis; and pictures of W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.
“Seventy Fifth Avenue is a building of nearly unrivaled historic significance, having served as the headquarters of not only the NAACP and The Crisis magazine in its early years but an unparalleled array of human rights, civil liberties, progressive, labor, peace, and women’s organizations in the early 20th century,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation. “It was from here that the Harlem Renaissance flowered in the pages of The Crisis and the NAACP confronted the plague of lynching, segregation in the federal workforce, widespread legally sanctioned discrimination, the American invasion of Haiti, and the hatred and slander of The Birth of A Nation. The ACLU and the Women’s Peace Party began here, and the Armenian genocide was publicized and called out.”
In 2021, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) unanimously voted to designate 70 Fifth Avenue as a landmark for its architectural, historical, and cultural significance. This past spring, The New School joined with Village Preservation to unveil a plaque featuring remarks from several social justice and architectural scholars and historians, who linked the building’s history to significant developments in New York City and the United States during the 20th century.
“For me, 70 Fifth Avenue epitomizes what I try to teach my students: that there is not only an architecture of buildings in the city but an architecture of the city. We need to look at the Educational Building not just as a landmarked building in the city and a fragment of the city itself as a built artifact. It is only one L-shaped jigsaw piece in a larger puzzle which is New York City,” said Brian McGrath, a professor of urban design at Parsons’ Schools of Constructed Environments, during the plaque unveiling event. “Like many early office buildings, this was a workhorse of the emerging white collar city, with many small business and nonprofit organizations renting small suites in a building that could accommodate the growth of any organization. This was the architectural beehive that cultivated organizations like the NAACP. I can only imagine the encounters in the corridors, elevators, and lobby of 70 Fifth Avenue.”
Curated by Village Preservation trustee Leslie Mason and development director Lannyl Stephens, the exhibition will be on display through October 30, 2022. “Our Village forebears were courageous leaders and changemakers of civil rights and cultural movements,” said Leslie Mason, a member of Village Preservation’s Board of Trustees and a lifelong Village resident, in a press release. “Advocacy in all its forms is in the bones of our community. With this exhibition, we celebrate the courageous innovators, amplify their voices, and hope to carry their examples forward.”