With two rainbow-colored umbrellas rigged up to shield her face from the sun, painter Patricia Melvin sits at the tip of tree-lined Sheridan Square and delicately dabs white paint onto a canvas. She's recreating the scene before her: A turn-of-the-century white brick building with a few tables and patrons spilling onto the sidewalk from LesDeuxGamins cafe.
"When you're sitting here, if you don't think about the cars, you can almost put yourself back in another century," she says.
Beneath Ms. Melvin's historic panorama close to the heart of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, a contemporary political fight is brewing encompassing everything from the threat of terrorism to concern about overzealous and insensitive government. It's the kind of "not in my backyard" fight that seems more characteristic of strip malls and heartland development than of America's most Bohemian enclave. It pits neighbors hoping to protect the community's historic nature against the needs of a bustling, growing metropolis. But this battle, like most things in New York now, is far more complex and charged with emotion because of terrorist attacks.
The nub of the problem is the PATH commuter trains from New Jersey that because of the terrorist attacks are so jam-packed during rush hours the neighborhood stations have been deemed a potential safety hazard. Its solution is to put two new exits smack dab in the heart of this historic district. Though the exits are small by urban standards just shelters over stairways they're likely to claim unsightly chunks of the quaint alleyways. They're home to the free clinic built in 1831 where Edgar Allen Poe was treated and to the Stonewall Inn, where riots in 1969 marked the birth of the gay rights movement. And the neighbors who say they weren't consulted before plans were set are outraged.
"They're going to alter the character of the gay historic district, which is a federal historic landmark," says Peter Kennedy, who lives in a 19th-century brownstone on Grove Street in the Square. "They're going to chop down trees and put a 50-foot hole right in front of some of the oldest houses in the city."
The dispute is delicate because it's a direct result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The PATH station at the World Trade Center was destroyed and the New Jersey riders now travel uptown to Sheridan Square before they can get off and catch a subway back downtown to the financial district. So the number of riders at the two PATH stations near Sheridan Square have more than doubled to over 16,000 a day.
The Port Authority contends that if two trains come in at the same time during rush hour, it could take 18 minutes for everyone to clear out in an emergency. "What we're proposing would get everyone out of the stations in seven minutes," says Steve Coleman, of the Port Authority.
The neighbors don't object to improving safety. They just want to be sure it's being done in the least intrusive way, which is most sensitive to the unique character of Christopher Street and its environs, says Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
He and others note that construction on the new exits if it goes ahead won't be finished until 2004, about the same time PATH station at the World Trade Center will be rebuilt. And then the ridership at Sheridan Square is expected to drop in half, just as fast as it doubled. So why tamper with an historic site for short-term needs?
"They could look at making the extra exits closer to where the current ones are," says Mr. Berman. "That's how it's done at other subway stops."
Many, including some commuters themselves, believe the Port Authority should simply put on more trains at more intervals to take care of the short-term congestion. The two sides have squared off. The Port Authority is trying to win the neighbors over by holding community meetings and commissioning a study of possible alternatives, but it insists the work needs to be done, and soon. But Mr. Berman and neighbors are preparing a legal strategy. In the meantime, Ms. Melvin dabs at her paints, hoping the scene she's preserving will be left for posterity on more than just her canvas. "The neighborhood is so old, so peaceful and architecturally, it has a lot of integrity. I would hate for anything to happen to it."