The Truth About the Truth About the Provincetown Playhouse

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The last mention of the Provincetown Playhouse on this site was June 9, 2010. Not that the saga surrounding the storied, iconic Greenwich Village theater, owned by New York University’s School of Law, has lessened in personal importance for me during the last few months. Hopelessly frustrated, I simply gave up worrying about it.

The truth is, the last substantive post on the Provincetown Playhouse on this site was actually Sept. 11, 2009. It followed a Curbed.com post that, despite NYU’s public assurances that the four walls of the theater would be preserved as plans proceeded to demolish the surrounding building, the four walls of the theater had, in fact, been breached, with a hole clearly visible, like an urban cancer.

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That was more than 15 months ago. At the time, I called Alicia Hurley, NYU’s vice president for government and community engagement — an oxymoron if ever one existed — “a fraud, a menace and a disgrace.” I was, and I remain, appalled by Hurley’s unmasked contempt toward the citizens who raised their voices against NYU’s plans. The look on her face was not unlike a festering sore. She turned her back when people spoke, or else her eyes glazed over, or else she was rolling them.

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And talk about rolling them — that Hurley is actually paid by NYU, my alma mater, to lie to the public on a daily basis is more than enough reason alone to never, ever to give the university a single dollar, and to harness any opportunity, whether public or private, to discuss the myriad ways in which her boss, NYU President John Sexton, “The Rasputin of Greenwich Village,” is equally a fraud, a menace and a disgrace. (Tough tone? All right, you tell me: At a church where a colleague of mine regularly worships and where Sexton regularly worships, Sexton gave my colleague a horribly rude brush-off after attempting to engage Sexton in a dialogue. Sexton was rude — palpably — in a house of God. Swell.)

The truth is, after Sept. 11, 2009, I was done. I wasn’t going to write anything else about the Provincetown Playhouse situation because it’s not as if Hurley, middle-aged spread and all, is going anywhere, and once the hole in the walls of the theater were evident, once Curbed.com had done its reporting, what else could we do but add it to the long list of broken promises made by NYU? I didn’t support the idea of keeping Terri Schiavo alive via feeding tube and I didn’t feel that continuing to scream over the Provincetown Playhouse had merit when the battle was so obviously lost. So what that Hurley said she’d take “full responsibility” for the hole in the wall? What the heck does that — did that — mean?

In the last two weeks, I received emails from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation that drove home all over again what at least half of the problem really was.

Fifteen months ago — in that same Sept. 11, 2009 post — I wrote the following:

What is Andrew Berman, GVSHP’s executive director, really doing for the situation? Generating more PDFs? Asking more people to write letters? How effective have these efforts been to date? And to think that this fellow, who I used to be very friendly with, turned out to be more jazzed by castigating me for using his name without asking permission in a blogpost many months ago than by acting like advocate that would hold NYU – and especially Hurley – truly and substantially responsible for this mess, is inescapably sad.

The truth is, Berman was furious that I’d used his name in a post, and furious that I’d mentioned his political ambitions on the CFR. Never mind that other bloggers cited it, never mind that people mentioned it openly at community board meetings, never mind that it was the biggest open secret since “Tom Cruise is gay” appeared in black magic marker on a college bathroom wall. Berman, from my observation, was far less jazzed by the idea of teaming the theater community with the historic preservation community in order to save the Provincetown Playhouse so much as using the theater as a bargaining chip, a pawn in the larger struggle to stop NYU from its ongoing evisceration of Greenwich Village. (If you think that’s too-high rhetoric, this is what Bloomberg News had to say about NYU’s expansion plans six months ago.) In Berman’s world, a series of stop-NYU petitions — which I pushed for very publicly, and which many people did sign — is tantamount to going nuclear.

The truth is, I don’t agree. I think petitions are ridiculous. Petitions aren’t action. They’re a way to make people think they’re taking action while not giving up dinner at the latest East 11th Street sushi fushion joint.

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The truth is, I think Berman was turned on by NY1’s coverage one of the save-the-Playhouse events all those months ago. And I think he was more than a little ungracious after I was able to help draw actor Joel Grey to go on camera in support of preserving the theater.

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The truth is, let’s just say I’m a jerk. A raving lunatic. Let’s just say my perceptions are completely warped, my memory completely fuzzy, I’m a mental defective, I’m a fabricator, I’m a liar, I’m a thief, I’m the distinct reincarnation of Pol Pot and a desperate-for-medication schizophrenic with no connection to the reality in which the rest of you normal people live. Fifteen months later, what does Berman expect anyone will think of this email?:

Please join GVSHP, the Historic Districts Council, Greenwich Village Block Associations, representatives of NYU’s clerical, administrative, and technical staff, and many others outside NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse “Open House” tomorrow, Saturday December 11 at noon for an informational picket. While NYU claims the demolition of the historic Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments is about preservation and was supported by the community, the truth is very different.

NYU actually demolished more than 94% of the Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments building, a historic treasure ruled eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places, to replace it with law school offices. Then the university broke its word about the tiny piece of the building which it did promise to preserve, secretly demolishing parts of its 170 year old walls and failing to re-use or restore promised historic elements of the theater.

We will be handing out flyers and holding up signs so attendees to the Open House know the truth, and NYU is not allowed to whitewash its history.

An informational picket?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit that Droopy Dog is more motivating. I’ve spent two weeks in a futile search for anyone in the theater community who attended and here’s the result: zilch.

I’m not saying people didn’t show. I’m saying the theater community didn’t show. And Berman really couldn’t care less. They’re not his peeps.

Tellingly, the second email from GVSHP plays the trumpet but lacks very many notes:

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….GVSHP, the Historic Districts Council, representatives of NYU staff and several community groups (see full list of co-sponsors HERE) picketed outside NYU’s Open House for the “re-opening” of the Provincetown Playhouse to tell the truth about NYU and what happened to the Playhouse.

We distributed literature to attendees and the press outlining how NYU had actually demolished 94% of a building ruled eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places (which included the first Provincetown Playhouse at 139 MacDougal Street) and broke its promises regarding the preservation and restoration of the current Provincetown Playhouse theater, including preserving the theater’s four walls, re-using the theater’s few remaining historic features, and restoring those the university had destroyed during its two and a half decades of ownership of the Playhouse (see our flyer HERE).

Our side of the story made it into the coverage of what NYU claimed was a broadly-embraced “preservation” project (see stories in the NY Times, on NY1, and in Curbed), and more than a few visitors and passersby learned about NYU’s track record with this and a long line of projects and broken promises (see images HERE)…

They distributed literature! Wow! Sigh.

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The truth is, it’s excellent that the Times, NY1 and Curbed covered this event, and no, I’m not at all being facetious. The problem is, 15 months after the hole was discovered, more than two years (or was it three?) since the Provincetown Playhouse disaster erupted, isn’t it a day late and a dollar short?

If the “informational picket” was so effective, shouldn’t GVSHP provide, say, a tally of how many picketers picketed?

The truth is, the quotes in the Times story from Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, are a lot more fiery, a lot more pointed, a lot more respectable and, for my Times dollar, a whole lot more believable. I will admit to self-interest: Bankoff has treated me well and his organization has sometimes linked to the CFR’s prior posts on historic preservation. I think he’s not afraid to state his mind — the mission comes first, the politics comes after that. I think Berman demonstrated to me that he has it very much the other way around.

Here are some other truths:

I made a mistake to think that the theater community and the historic preservation community had natural common cause. I was wrong.

I made a mistake not to realize that the slice of the New York theater community that mobilized against NYU’s plan to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse, the birthplace of the modern American theater, was strong enough by itself to alter the final outcome of the situation. And I made a mistake not to realize that without a true partner in someone like Berman, it was all a fait accompli from the start. I was wrong.

The truth about the truth about the Provincetown Playhouse is the truth about activism — that it can easily be derailed by the very people who can create change. I should have known that. I was wrong.