Some of New York City’s most glamorous bohemians are taking to the barricades in a battle that recalls the heroic, successful stand against Westway but seems, given current realities, a bit more quixotic. “The Village is rapidly disappearing. I don’t believe it’s NYU’s prerogative to destroy it,” said the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, one of dozens of Greenwich Village actors, artists, and writers aligned with a group of more than 400 NYU faculty members to protest NYU’s ambitious expansion plan. “NYU pretty much owns the entire neighborhood!” the essayist Fran Lebowitz said with that trademark drawl. “I personally don’t feel universities add to the life of the city. Places where universities add to life had no life to begin with, seriously!” “You can’t walk on the sidewalk as it is,” Matthew Modine added. “This is the remaining portion of the city that predates the automobile. On a weekend, I find it impossible to walk out onto the street.” The thought of Modine and Lebowitz being impeded by students paying the full NYU freight of roughly $64,000 is indeed a little distasteful—although it has to be said that this is largely an upper-middle-class problem. The Village has always been for artists—but in the past, a much larger percentage of them were starving.
The person who has created this unfortunate situation is John Sexton, NYU’s president since 2001. Sexton is congenitally high-handed, as if anywhere in the Village and the sky above it is within the bounds of his fiefdom. Universities now are as much business incubators as student educators. They’re corporate behemoths, speaking the language of market share while enjoying the support of government and taxpayer largesse. Like the lion’s share of New York disputes, the argument between Sexton and his critics boils down to high-priced real estate. NYU’s master plan, called NYU 2031, proposes to add 6 million square feet of new space across the city in the next eighteen years. Nearly a third of that development is slated for Greenwich Village, where NYU is aiming to add four new buildings totaling some 2 million square feet. Indeed, if Modine does not like to be jostled now, by the time he’s 72 he may want to move to Florida.
To his opponents, Sexton can seem like the reincarnation of Robert Moses, the planner of Westway. “The NYU expansion plan doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the education business but a lot to do with the real-estate business,” said the actress Kathleen Chalfant. “It’s absolutely terrifying that it’s being done.”
So last week, celebrities and their comrades in the anti-Sexton group NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan opened an online silent auction with more than 150 lots. There is a chance to shoot hoops with John Leguizamo (starting bid: $800), spend two hours shopping with Padma Lakshmi, who will “assess your pantry and spice needs” ($1,000), and take a private acting lesson with Philip Seymour Hoffman ($1,000). Lewis Lapham, who long seems to have considered himself too refined to consort with mere causes, has offered to have lunch with anyone willing to spend $2,500 and up. “Lunch with Lewis Lapham is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’ll surely treasure,” the auctioneers promise. The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Philip Levine donated the pen he used to write his 1999 book The Mercy. NYU’s “mentality reminded me of the kind of thing Reagan would do to break unions. It was that hideous corporate mentality,” Levine, a former NYU poet-in-residence, said. “The greed they’re showing just awes me.”
“These buildings are the same kind of genre like that one on 57th Street,” Lebowitz said of NYU’s proposals, making reference to developer Gary Barnett’s 1,004-foot ultraluxury tower casting a shadow in the form of a middle finger over Central Park. “He decided to take an architectural lead from Dubai. But this is a city. People live here. This isn’t some invention in the middle of nowhere.”
“The need for additional academic space as outlined in the core plan is clear and real, as the University Space Priorities Working Group—comprised mainly of faculty members—found in their interim report,” university spokesman John Beckman said.
The battle in the court of public opinion is playing out as the anti-Sexton forces battle NYU in the courts. Soon, State Supreme Court judge Donna Mills is expected to rule in a lawsuit brought by opponents seeking to block the 2031 plan. The legal maneuvering is the latest chapter in a years-long battle between NYU and its Greenwich Village neighbors. Sexton’s own employees are the ones leading the celebrity brigades. NYU’s faculty has issued no-confidence votes against Sexton’s presidency, while the administration has accused faculty critics of “Swift Boating” his policies.
In July 2012, the City Council voted 44-1 to approve NYU’s plan. While Sexton has so far moved forward implacably, some of the Molotov cocktails are starting little fires. NYU withdrew plans to build a 400-foot-tall hotel and residential tower alongside the site of the I. M. Pei–designed Silver Towers complex after Pei’s longtime business partner, Henry Cobb, called the plan “highly destructive.” There have been faculty outcries over Sexton’s Wall Street–esque compensation (nearly $1.5 million in salary) and an embarrassing front-page Times story last June that revealed that NYU provided Sexton with several loans, one for nearly $600,000, for his house on Fire Island, which led to an inquiry by Iowa senator Charles Grassley into NYU’s compensation and loan practices. In August, NYU announced Sexton would be stepping down when his term concludes in 2016, and that it would be ending loans for administrators’ vacation homes.
One way to view the struggle for control of the Village is as the last battle of the Bloomberg era. “I actually think the outpouring is motivated, wittingly or not, by a sense that enough is enough development-wise in New York City,” said NYU media and communications professor Mark Crispin Miller, a leader of the faculty revolt. “The Bloomberg years are behind us now. It’s important for people to understand this fight.”
Sexton’s vision to transform NYU into a global megabrand, with satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, among other world cities, and anchored by soaring new buildings in Washington Square, has made him a Trump-like villain to a certain set. It’s vulgarian versus aesthete, even though the university, whatever else it is, is a haven, one of the last, for the humanities. “You say, ‘Oh my God, what’s happened to this place?’ John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane. There were these magnificent people living there,” Levine said.
The clock was recently turned back in the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis (Nicki Ledermann, the film’s head makeup artist, donated a $200 session for the anti-NYU auction). But the Village might not be able to go home again, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe—who lived on 8th Street. *
*The original version of this article mistakenly referred to Thomas Wolfe as Tom Wolfe.