Author and NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller is a member of the organization NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), a group that's fighting NYU's plan to bulldoze the Village for more development.
I asked Mark some questions about the plan, NYUFASP, and the fabulous book While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York (which you can buy here or pick up at the McNally Jackson bookstore).
JVNY: Tell us a little bit about putting together the book While We Were Sleeping. It's got a fantastic roster of writers. How did you know who'd be able to write with anger and clarity about NYU expansion?
MCM: We didn't know, but it did work out beautifully. Peter Carey worked especially hard to help us fill that dazzling roster out. He also came up with the title, and got Tom Slaughter to provide us with the cover illustration. NYUFASP owes him a lot—and so will NYU, if it survives the Sexton Plan.
We're also indebted to Sarah McNally [of McNally-Jackson Books], as the book was her idea, and she's essentially the publisher, as her staff designed it, and the copies are all printed right there in her extraordinary bookstore.
Fran kicks ass--in conversation with Mark
JVNY: In your introduction to the book, you talk about the "death blow" NYU's plan will deal to the city. Can you quickly outline what that means, what you see happening if this plan continues?
MCM: Beyond its toxic impact on those two large residential blocks, right in the heart of Greenwich Village, the project sets a devastating precedent for every neighborhood in New York City, because of what the City Council gave away to NYU's administration. They didn't have to do it, but they did, because NYU demanded it.
First of all, the City Council changed the zoning, not in the best interests of the public or the city overall—on the contrary. The public, NYU's own faculty included, argued overwhelmingly, and cogently, against re-zoning the neighborhood for commercial purposes, but they—we—were all ignored. Thus the City Council, pressured heavily by Christine Quinn and Margaret Chin, shrugged off the objections of Quinn's and Chin's constituents, and favored NYU's administration and trustees, just because the latter asked for it
Second, the City Council nullified an urban renewal agreement that NYU signed decades ago, barring any new construction on the south "superblock" before 2021. There are many such agreements city-wide. That the City Council simply wiped out that agreement, just because NYU asked them to, does not bode well for other neighborhoods all over.
And, third, the City Council sold NYU precious strips of public land, while giving them broad easements over other public land—just because NYU demanded it. Thus they let NYU either build outright on what was public property, or ravage it to make way for construction.
That the City Council did all this at the mere whim of a giant developer—since that's what NYU has now become—bodes ill for every New York City neighborhood that could be overbuilt, and so destroyed.
The Sexton Plan
JVNY: What has NYU's response been to the book and to FASP?
MCM: No response. They seem intent on not acknowledging that we exist—i.e., that their own faculty are overwhelmingly opposed to this mad project.
To date, 37 departments and divisions have voted against the Sexton Plan, nearly all those votes unanimous or near-unanimous. Those dissenting bodies include the Stern Business School, which voted 52-3 against the Plan; and the Economics Department, which was unanimous against the Plan—meaning that its three Nobel Prize winners are against it, too. Aside from such prestigious, large departments as English, History, Mathematics, Anthropology and Sociology (all of those unanimous against the Plan), there are also the Gallatin School and the School of Social Work. And more bodies will be casting votes this fall.
Of the 30 departments in the School of Arts & Science, only six have not yet voted. One of those is actually against the Plan, but won't conduct a vote, having preferred to convey its qualms to Sexton privately; and two others will be holding votes this fall. So that leaves only three that seem resolved to back the Plan no matter what, though even they may change their minds, the more they learn.
And yet Sexton and his people say the Sexton Plan enjoys "amazing" faculty support, even though their list of pro-Plan faculty includes a grand total of 18 names.
They have to make such claims, and otherwise play down our broad and ever-growing opposition, because the truth is a PR disaster for them—i.e., that the Sexton Plan is really not an "NYU expansion plan," as they like to call it. How could it be, when we, the faculty, are NYU, and we don't want it? This plan, rather, is supported only by the president, a few of his associates, and certain powerful figures, primarily the real estate developers, on NYU's Board of Trustees. (That's why we call it "the Sexton Plan.")
Also, it would help them if they could laugh off the opposition as a cranky rabble of obstructive locals. That narrative—the noble University, beset by its weird, backward-looking "neighbors"—has always helped to undercut the opposition. Since we're allied with the community against the Plan, that narrative no longer works.
GVSHP via NY Observer
JVNY: How do you, and others, manage the tension of working for NYU, benefiting from NYU, teaching its students, and your own feelings about how NYU is behaving in the neighborhoods around it? It must be complicated.
MCM: I can speak only for myself, although I'm confident that many of my colleagues feel as I do. As one who lives, and has a family, in the neighborhood targeted for devastation, I have to say it's been less painful to combat the Plan than it would be to sit here waiting for the bulldozers to roar in and tear up the trees. And one great benefit of that horrific project is that it's brought us close together to each other and our neighbors all throughout the Village.
But it's been hard, living in the shadow of the wrecking ball—a little like having an armed drone always hovering high overhead. And it's also been hard bumping up against the indifference—maybe the word is "corruption"?— of the city agencies, and, especially, our elected representatives. Scott Stringer was downright abusive when some of us went in to see him, and the Council Members obviously tuned us out. That hasn't been fun.
And then there's the tension you bring up, of opposing your employer/landlord. All in all, it has been pretty hard. It's definitely had an impact on my health, and I am not the only one. But the alternative, which is to let the Plan go through, would be far worse for everyone; and so we have no choice but to continue doing all we can to stop it.
Mark rallying the troops, The Villager
JVNY: The Sexton Plan has been approved by the City Council. What happens next?
MCM: No need to hang our heads, because we haven't been defeated, even though we lost the battle on that front—which we knew would happen. So we prepared to fight the Sexton Plan through other means; and with a little help from everyone who cares about the Village and the city overall, and everyone who cares about the university itself, we're going to win.
First of all, we have a powerful law firm, Gibson Dunn, working for us, and readying lawsuits on our behalf. The firm has a great record halting ill-conceived construction projects on behalf of the communities opposing them. Because the Sexton Plan is not unique, but just another case of runaway development in Bloomberg's New York City, we're joining forces with a lot of other groups that are fighting similar developments all over town—in SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, you name it. In short, we're fighting not just to protect our own two blocks but—just like you, Jeremiah, and with you—for the very heart and soul of New York City.
Another consideration compels us to fight Sexton's plan—the unbearable debt burden carried by our students. NYU's tuition is among the highest in the country, and our undergraduates leave here more indebted than any other student cohort nationwide (among the graduates of private universities). Because NYU has a very small endowment, the Sexton Plan would be financed mainly by more student debt—an arrangement both precarious and wrong.
And so our fight to halt the Sexton Plan is actually a fight both for the city and the university—that is, all cities and all universities today, as both are under threat by the same interests. This is why our friends and peers at other schools throughout the city—Columbia, the New School, Hunter, CUNY Grad Center, Brooklyn College—are also joining forces with us, forming their own FASP chapters in solidarity with our attempt to save NYU, the university, from "NYU"—the corporation.
JVNY: What can people do to help?
MCM: We need funds to pay our lawyers, our PR team, and our small, highly dedicated staff (all former students). Donations are tax-deductible, and anyone who donates at least $18 will receive a copy of While We Were Sleeping.
Checks, made out to NYUFASP, may be mailed to:
51 MacDougal St.
For donating online, or by credit card, click here.