Erik Wensberg, editor/writer, key Jacobs ally, 79

By Albert Amateau

Erik Dana Wensberg, a writer, editor and longtime Village resident who worked with the late Jane Jacobs in the successful efforts to prevent the destruction of the neighborhood 40 years ago, died June 5 at age 79. He died of pneumonia, said his sister, Eleanor Pelcyger.

At his death, Wensberg was completing a biography of James Agee, the author of “A Death in the Family,” on which he had been working for several years.

Wensberg first came to New York from Omaha, Neb., in 1949 when he entered Columbia University. He graduated in 1953 and worked as an editor of the Columbia Alumni News, becoming editor in 1955. He was founding editor of The Columbia Forum, a quarterly of fact and opinion, from 1957 to 1963. He returned as editor of the Forum in 1971 and served until 1975.

Wensberg reviewed books and wrote articles for The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, Commentary and other magazines. He developed a reputation as an expert on the American language, and in 1998, Hill and Wang, the publisher of Wilson Follett’s “Modern American Usage,” selected him to revise and update the book.

With Jacobs, he was a founding member of the West Village Committee and joined her in the successful effort to block the urban renewal project that would have destroyed 14 blocks of the Village. He also joined the fight to block Robert Moses’ 1963 plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway from river to river on Broome St.

In an interview in April 2006, Wensberg told The Villager, “We didn’t win them all. We opposed the [N.Y.U.] Bobst Library, saying it was a waste of space and would cast a shadow on Washington Square Park. It does. And we opposed the World Trade Center.”

Jacobs enlisted Wensberg to read and edit the manuscript of her groundbreaking book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” before she submitted it to her editor at Random House, according to his sister.

“She was only one of many authors who sought his expert editorial advice,” Pelcyger said.

“I knew Erik as a friendly neighbor and as a fellow member of the board of the West Village Committee with Jane,” said Arthur Stoliar, a longtime Jane St. resident. “It was before the West Village Houses were built and we fought long and hard with Marty Berger as our attorney to get it approved.”

“He lived across from the Gansevoort Hotel, which was keeping people awake with noise from its cafes a couple of years ago,” Stoliar recalled. “Erik went to the Jane St. Association, got their support and started a campaign to quiet [the hotel] down. He did a thorough job and was able finally to get them to pay attention and fix the problem,” Stoliar said.

Erik Wensberg was born May 16, 1931, in Omaha, Neb., to Roy and Katherine Wensberg. A brother, Peter, died in 2006. In addition to his sister, six nephews and a niece survive.