The Village Voice vs. Robert Moses

Washington Square Arch
The last car going through the Washington Square arch before closing the park to traffic. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In this excerpt from her new book, The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture, Tricia Romano details the rise of Mary Perot Nichols, who became one of Robert Moses’s most formidable antagonists through her work at the Voice. “She was a housewife and a neighbor of mine,” Ed Fancher, co-founder and publisher, said of Perot Nichols’s unlikely start at the paper. “She had a great deal to do with destroying the career of Robert Moses because of the highway through the park, but the copy she would bring in to Dan, he said, was unreadable.”

CLARK WHELTON (freelance writer, 1968–1971; staff writer, 1971–1975 and 1977–1978): Do you know the story of Mary Nichols?

ELIZA NICHOLS (daughter of Mary Perot Nichols): My mother was involved in the fight against Robert Moses, and in particular Washington Square Park, and to have it closed from traffic. She kept going into the Village Voice: “You’ve got to write about this.” Dan Wolf finally got sick of this mother coming to him and saying, “You got to write about this,” and he said, “You write about it.”

One of her good friends was the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs. My mother and Grace Paley and Jane Jacobs would take the kids to the park, and they became friends that way.

ED FANCHER (Voice co-founder and publisher, 1955–1974): She was a housewife and a neighbor of mine. She had a great deal to do with destroying the career of Robert Moses because of the highway through the park, but the copy she would bring in to Dan, he said, was unreadable.

ELIZA NICHOLS: My mother had no formal training. She did have a college education in political science. That was a very important formation for her, to be on the ground and doing this reporting. That was definitely Wolf’s brilliance. He hired people who cared about stuff.

Dan was warm and kind and funny and loving, and smart, and he was capable of thinking of how to not only hire a woman in those days and give her authority, but also retain her. She didn’t have her own office. I had to come to her office after school, because there was no after-school program in those days, and I was the youngest. I had nowhere to go, and she was working. So, he rented an apartment next door to the original Village Voice building, so that she would have an office where I could just sit and draw and play while she was working. My mother wrote a lot. She wrote under deadline, and she hated every minute of it. She loved her job. She was much more excited about the scent than the kill.

DIANE FISHER (receptionist, 1962–1963; editorial assistant, 1963–1965; associate editor, 1965–1974): Mary may be the only layman in the whole world who read the capital budget from the first item to the last.

ELIZA NICHOLS: The famous “follow the money” — that was something my mother did way early on. Her finally figuring out what the financial interests of the various constituencies were led her and Jane Jacobs to ask for a meeting with the Mafia boss, because they understood that he controlled all of the South Village and what is now Soho and Tribeca.

He said something like, “Why should I care?” And my mother said, “If that freeway is built, your entire neighborhood’s going to be destroyed. And all those small businessmen who pay tribute to you and who you control are no longer going to exist.” I’m pretty sure it was the Gambino family that was in business then.

MARY PEROT NICHOLS: City planning issues like Moses — that was my bête noire until he got out of office.

ED FANCHER: Every week, she would be pounding away at Moses. He wanted to put a highway through Washington Square, and we stopped it by pounding away week after week. We made it clear that politically it would be suicide for Carmine DeSapio. Carmine DeSapio had to make the final decision because he was a very powerful figure, and if he didn’t stand up to Moses and stop it, he would’ve been out of power. It’s that’s simple. And he finally did it after weeks and weeks of work.

JANE JACOBS (journalist, activist, and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities): I saw Moses only once, at a hearing about the road through Washington Square; he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this, and I guess he could already see that his plan was in danger. Because he was saying, “There is nobody against this — NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY — but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS!” And then he stomped out.

CLARK WHELTON: Then came “the Bath Mat Solution.” Moses said, “All right, so I won’t build a highway through the park, but we will just simply take the traffic around both sides of the park, turning the rectangle into an oval,” and she beat him on that, too. Robert Caro gives her credit for being the first person to actually wrestle Moses to the ground and stop him.

ROBIN REISIG (freelance news writer, 1970–1975): There was going to be a cross- town, elevated highway — with exit and entrance ramps that would have destroyed Soho and parts of Chinatown and everything else — crossing lower Manhattan. There would have been no Soho in the way we know Soho. It would have been a disaster.

CLARK WHELTON: She stopped that too!

ALAN WEITZ (courier/mailroom clerk, 1965–1968; editorial assistant, 1969–1972; assistant city editor, 1973; assistant news editor, January 1974–April 1974; associate editor, 1974–1975; managing editor, 1977–1979): Can you imagine an expressway across Canal Street? And they stopped him from building these tremendous West Village apartments and got the West Village declared a historical landmark.

CLARK WHELTON: She went through every line of a document to find out who was swindling who, and which landlords were getting away with murder. Through the Village Voice, she warned New York that landlords had in mind towers along the Hudson River. They want to block off our view of the Hudson. She said, “If we don’t stop them, they’re going to control through the Lower Manhattan Expressway and the various other techniques they have, they’re going to end up wanting all that land.”

ELIZA NICHOLS: Ed Fancher said my mother’s writing saved the Village Voice from going under in about 1958.

CLARK WHELTON: The Voice was her weapon. The Voice saved the Village for years and years.

An excerpt from The Freaks Came Out to WriteThe Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano, which will be published by PublicAffairs on February 27.

The Village Voice vs. Robert Moses