WEST VILLAGE AND CHELSEA HISTORY -
There is no neighborhood like the
West Village (Greenwich Village, the village). Its a diverse neighborhood
that has a life of itself, flowing with artists and musicians, and actors.
Several generations of writers and artists have lived and worked here: in the 19th century, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane; at the turn of the 20th century, O. Henry, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Hart Crane; and during the 1920s and '30s, John Dos Passos, Norman Rockwell, Sinclair Lewis, John Reed, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Hopper, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the abstract expressionist painters Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning congregated here, as did the Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The 1960s brought folk musicians and poets, notably Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Today, block for block, the Village is still one of the most vibrant parts of the city. Well-heeled professionals occupy high-rent apartments and town houses side by side with bohemian, longtime residents -- who pay cheap rents thanks to rent-control laws -- as well as NYU students. Locals and visitors rub elbows at dozens of small restaurants, cafés spill out onto sidewalks, and an endless variety of small shops pleases everyone. Except for a few pockets of adult-entertainment shops and divey bars, the Village is as scrubbed as posher neighborhoods.
Greenwich Village lends itself to a leisurely pace, so allow yourself most of a day to explore its backstreets and stop at shops and cafés.
Washington Square Area
Begin your tour of Greenwich Village at the foot of 5th Avenue at Washington Memorial Arch in Washington Square Park. Most buildings bordering the leafy square belong to NYU. On Washington Square North, between University Place and MacDougal Street, stretches The Row, two blocks of lovingly preserved Greek revival and federal-style town houses.
At the corner of Washington Square South and Thompson Street you'll see the square-towered Judson Memorial Church. One block east, at La Guardia Place, NYU's rebuilt student center stands on the site of a boardinghouse that had been nicknamed the House of Genius for the talented writers who lived there over the years: Theodore Dreiser, O. Henry, and Eugene O'Neill, among others. Another block east is the hulking red sandstone Bobst Library, built in 1972, which represents an abortive attempt to create a unified campus look for NYU as envisioned by architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster. At one time plans called for all the Washington Square buildings to be refaced in this red stone; the cost proved prohibitive. On the east side of the square, you can take in a contemporary art exhibit at Grey Art Gallery, housed in NYU's main building.
From Washington Memorial Arch and the park, cross Washington Square North to the east corner of 5th Avenue, where there's a portico entrance to 7-13 Washington Square North. Beyond the white columns of this entrance is the small, attractive Willy's Garden. A statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, stands at the far end. The likeness, cast in 1724, was a gift from the mayor of Madrid.
Another half a block north, on the east side of 5th Avenue, is Washington Mews, a cobblestone private street. A similar Village mews, MacDougal Alley, lies between Washington Square North and 8th Street, one block west. Continue up the west side of 5th Avenue; you'll pass the Church of the Ascension, a Gothic revival brownstone building. At 12th Street you can stop in the Forbes Magazine Galleries.
Backtrack to West 11th Street and turn right to see one of the best examples of a Village town-house block. One exception to the 19th-century redbrick town houses here is the modern, angled front window of 18 West 11th Street, usually occupied by a stuffed bear whose outfit changes day to day. This house was built after the original was destroyed in a 1970 explosion of a basement bomb factory, which had been started by members of the Weathermen, the revolutionary faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. Toward 6th Avenue, behind a low wall on the south side of the street, is the Second Shearith Israel graveyard, used by the country's oldest Jewish congregation after the original cemetery in Chinatown and before the one in Chelsea.
6th Avenue and West
Turn left on Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) and go south one block. On the west side of the street, the triangle formed by West 10th Street, 6th Avenue, and Greenwich Avenue originally held a market, a jail, and the magnificent towered courthouse that is now the Jefferson Market Library. West of 6th Avenue on 10th Street is the wrought-iron gateway to a tiny courtyard called Patchin Place; around the corner, on 6th Avenue just north of 10th Street, is a similar cul-de-sac, Milligan Place.
Next, proceed to Christopher Street, which veers off from the south end of the library triangle. Christopher Street has long been the symbolic heart of New York's gay and lesbian community. Within a few steps you'll see Gay Street on your left. Continue on to cross Waverly Place, where on your left you'll pass the 1831 brick Northern Dispensary building. At 51-53 Christopher Street, the historic Stonewall riots marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. Across the street is a green triangle named Christopher Park, not to be confused with Sheridan Square, another landscaped triangle to the south.
Across the busy intersection of 7th Avenue South, Christopher Street has many cafés, bars, and stores; several cater to a gay clientele, but all kinds of people traverse the narrow sidewalks. Two shops worth a visit are McNulty's Tea and Coffee Co. (No. 109), with a large variety of tea and coffee blends, and Li-Lac Chocolate Shop (No. 120), a longtime favorite for its homemade chocolate and butter crunch.
West of 7th Avenue South, the Village turns into a picture-book town of twisting tree-lined streets, quaint houses, and tiny restaurants. Starting from Sheridan Square West, follow Grove Street past the house at No. 59 where Thomas Paine died -- now the site of Marie's Crisis Cafe -- and the onetime home (No. 45) of poet Hart Crane. At the next corner you could choose to follow Bleecker Street northwest toward Abingdon Square. This section of Bleecker Street is full of crafts and antiques shops, coffeehouses, and small restaurants.
If you forego Bleecker Street, continue your walk on Grove Street. The secluded intersection of Grove and Bedford streets seems to have fallen through a time warp into the 19th century. One of the few remaining clapboard structures in Manhattan is 17 Grove Street. Around the same corner is Twin Peaks, an early-19th-century house that resembles a Swiss chalet. Heading west, Grove Street curves in front of the iron gate of Grove Court, a group of mid-19th-century brick-front residences.
Return to Bedford Street, turn right, and walk until you get to No. 86. Behind the unmarked door is Chumley's, a former speakeasy. Continue a couple of blocks farther to the oldest house in the Village, the Isaacs-Hendricks House. The place next door, 75½ Bedford Street, at 9½ ft wide, is New York's narrowest house. Bedford Street intersects Commerce Street, one of the Village's most romantic untrod lanes, and home to the historic Cherry Lane Theatre. Across the street, past the bend in the road, stand two nearly identical brick houses separated by a garden and popularly known as the Twin Sisters.
Turn left onto Barrow Street and then right onto Hudson Street, so named because this was originally the bank of the Hudson River. The block to the northwest is owned by St. Luke's in the Fields. Writer Bret Harte once lived at 487 Hudson Street, at the end of the row. If your feet are getting tired, you can head north on Hudson Street for four blocks and take a rest at the legendary White Horse Tavern, at 11th Street.
Two blocks south of Barrow Street, turn left at St. Luke's Place (this is Leroy Street west of Hudson Street), a one-block row of classic 1860s town houses. Across 7th Avenue South, St. Luke's Place becomes Leroy Street again, which terminates in an old Italian neighborhood at Bleecker Street. Because of all the touristy shops and crowds, Bleecker Street between 6th and 7th avenues seems more vital these days than Little Italy does. For authentic Italian ambience, step into one of the fragrant Italian bakeries, such as A. Zito & Sons (No. 259) and Rocco's (No. 243), or look inside the old-style butcher shops, such as Ottomanelli & Sons (No. 285) and Faicco's (No. 260). In a town that's fierce about its pizza, some New Yorkers swear by John's Pizzeria (No. 278), the original in a chain of four branches citywide. Be forewarned, however: no slices; whole pies only.
Head east on Bleecker Street to Carmine Street and the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii, where Mother Cabrini, a naturalized Italian immigrant who became the first American saint, often prayed. When you reach Father Demo Square (at Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue), head up 6th Avenue to West 3rd Street and check out the basketball courts, where city-style basketball is played in all but the very coldest weather. Turn down West 3rd Street and check out the illustrious Blue Note, where jazz greats play. The next intersection brings you to MacDougal Street, once home to several illustrious names. The two houses at 127 and 129 MacDougal Street were built for Aaron Burr in 1829; notice the pineapple newel posts, a symbol of hospitality. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women while living at 130-132 MacDougal Street. The Provincetown Playhouse at No. 133 premiered many of Eugene O'Neill's plays.
Head south on MacDougal to reach Caffe Reggio (No. 119), one of the Village's first coffeehouses. Its interior hasn't changed much since it opened in 1927. At Minetta Tavern (No. 113), a venerable Village watering hole, turn right onto Minetta Lane, which leads to narrow Minetta Street, another former speakeasy alley. Both streets follow the course of Minetta Brook, which once flowed through this neighborhood and still bubbles deep beneath the pavement. The foot of Minetta Street returns you to the corner of 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street, the stomping grounds of 1960s-era folksingers (many performed at the now-defunct Folk City, one block north on West 3rd Street). Partly because of the proximity of NYU, this area still attracts a young crowd to its cafés, bars, jazz clubs, coffeehouses, theaters, and cabarets.
Greenwich Village isn't what it used to be." When I started this book ten years ago, I knew that would be its first sentence. And when I soon discovered that the phrase had been used as early as 1916, I knew the history of the Village would be in large part the ever recurring birth and death and rebirth of bohemia. Youth, romance, adventure -- joy, poetry, rebellion -- what so quickly recedes into our past? -- what more often begins again?
The Village has been called "the most significant square mile in American cultural history," "the home of half the talent and half the eccentricity in the country," "the place where everything happens first." As a young journalist named John Reed said in the teens, "Within a block of my house was all the adventure in the world; within a mile every foreign country." The young scholar named Lionel Trilling declared in the twenties, "There seemed no other place where a right-thinking person might live." And a young actress named Lucille Ball put it in the forties, "The Village is the greatest place in the world."
Many major movements in American intellectual history began or were nurtured in the Village -- socialism, feminism, pacifism, gay liberation, Marxism, Freudianism, avant-garde fiction and poetry and theater, cubism, abstract expressionism, the anti-war movement and the counterculture of the sixties. And nearly every major American writer and artist lived in the Village at one time or another. What other community could claim a spectrum ranging from Henry James to Marlon Brando, from Marcel Duchamp to Bob Dylan, from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to Abbie Hoffman?
But though the Village has had a richer, more exuberant, and more fascinating history than any community in America -- its story told in dozens of guidebooks and tangentially in the hundreds of biographies of its major figures -- only two histories of the Village have been published, Allen Churchill's engaging The Improper Bohemians forty years ago and Terry Miller's charming but perfunctory Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way in 1990.
The Village has held such a mythic place in the American imagination that it has often served as kind of iconographic shorthand. A novelist only needed to write "then she moved to the Village" to evoke an entire set of assumptions -- she's a bit rebellious, artistically inclined, sexually emancipated, and eager to be on her own. The mythology of the place has been created in large part by those who moved there from elsewhere, of course, but also by the multitude of novels, plays, and movies set there, and by the perceptions of the media, which over the decades have alternated between titillated accounts of fun-loving, sexually uninhibited, and bizarrely attired bohemians and fulminating attacks on the blasphemous, un-American, and unhygienic enclave of nonconformists south of 14th Street. It has, in fact, had two parallel mythologies. It is the community where irresponsibility, naïveté, and self-indulgence are transformed into virtues. It is the magnet that attracts young men and women from all across America to assert their independence. It is the refuge for social misfits. It is the home of poseurs, eccentrics, and drifters, and a romantic alternative to mainstream society. It is a metaphor for iniquity.
The Village has had such a multiplicity of meanings that it has served as a testing ground for many of the major issues of American history, among them the relationship between individual and community, the link between cultural and political revolution, the adversarial stance of writers toward their society, the value of marginality as a spur to creativity, the necessity for a safety valve for social disaffection, the definitions of success and failure, and the role of iconography in cultural history.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum started in the Village, ASCAP and the ASPCA were founded there -- and a claim can be made for the YMCA and the YWCA as well. Unlikely as it sounds, it was where yet another American institution was born -- the National League. Even more unlikely -- a fact both parties would be happy to deny -- The Reader's Digest began beneath a speakeasy at 113 Macdougal Street in 1922. (The lead article in its first issue was entitled, with unconscious obeisance to its birthplace, "How to Keep Young Mentally," and the article about the theater was headlined "Is the State Too Vulgar?," a typographical error perhaps attributable to a free-spirited Village proofreader.)
Displaying the same kind of small-town chamber of commerce chauvinism they came to the Village to escape, Villagers are no less proud of "firsts" than any other community -- not all of them dubious. The first night court in America was held in the Village, and the first theater devoted exclusively to films (the 8th Street Playhouse). The first pizza served in America was served in the Village, also the first spaghetti dinner and the first ice cream soda. More in keeping with its mythology, the first labor demonstration in America took place there in the 1830s, when local stonecutters protested the use of Sing Sing convicts to cut stone for the construction of New York University (the nation's largest private university). And where else could the Unitary Household have been founded in 1859 (the first free-love community in the country), or, for that matter, the American Civil Liberties Union? The first musical comedy, the first theatrical cliffhanger, the first cabaret, the first American production of a play by Oscar Wilde. John L. Sullivan had his first fight there and George M. Cohan made his stage debut. The first theatrical agency (William Morris), the first salon, and, naturally, the first professional women's organization.
That quintessential American, the inventor, also had his place in Village history. For a time Thomas Edison had his office there (his son Charles was a Village poet, a fact he didn't dwell on, years later, when he was elected governor of New Jersey). Samuel Colt invented the Colt .45 there, and Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph. Bell Laboratories in the West Village (now an artists' housing complex called Westbeth) was the site of the first commercial radio broadcast and the first TV broadcast. The PA system was developed there as well as the sound-on-disc projector, which made talkies possible.
And speaking of movies, two young Village furriers, Adolph Zukor and Maurice Loew, started their dynasties at the corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue with Biograph Films, where Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters made their first pictures. Hundreds of movies were set in the Village in the following years, including Scarlet Street, Daisy Kenyon, On the Town, My Sister Eileen, Barefoot in the Park, Funny Face, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, The Group, and Desperately Seeking Susan. In Wait Until Dark, Audrey Hepburn awaited assault at 4 St. Luke's Place, and Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly solved the murder in Rear Window from an apartment overlooking 125 West 9th Street.
The trial of Harry Thaw for murdering Stanford White (who designed the Washington Square Arch) took place in the Jefferson Market Courthouse, and Clement Moore is said to have written "The Night Before Christmas" while a minister of a Village church. Howdy Doody was developed in the Village and the USS Monitor was built on a pier over by the Hudson River. The buffalo nickel was designed in the Village, as were the giant balloons for the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The narrowest house in New York City, only nine and a half feet wide, its occupants including Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Barrymore, is on Bedford Street, and the smallest parcel of private property in the country, a twenty-five-inch triangle, sits on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. In the only Shakespeare riot in American history, the adherents of the English actor Charles Macready and the followers of the American tragedian Edwin Forrest came to blows in the Village. And Lindbergh's legendary flight? One of the reasons Lindy took off was to claim the $25,000 offered by the French-born owner of the Brevoort Hotel on lower Fifth Avenue.
The founder of the New York Times came from the Village, and Tammany Hall -- another institution with an aversion to everything its residents stood for -- had its headquarters there. One local organization, in Little Italy in the South Village, has even less connection to the spirit of openness to diverse points of view -- the Mafia. One claim Villagers can be proud of is that 8th Street has been called "the most integrated street in America."
John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators held several of their meetings in the Village, which was also the home of the minister who presided over Lincoln's funeral service. And Eleanor Roosevelt maintained an apartment at 20 East 11th Street during the White House years and lived at 29 Washington Square West after FDR's death.
Several popular phrases in the Village entered the language. The Old Grapevine, a roadhouse located at the corner of 11th Street and Sixth Avenue and so named for the gnarled vine that covered its facade, was a thriving hangout in the nineteenth century, leading to the expression "I heard it through the grapevine." And in the 1880s, Fleischmann's Model Viennese Bakery on the corner of 11th Street and Broadway donated its unsold products to the poor at the end of every day, originating the phrase "bread line."
The list of novelists who called it home at some point in their lives is a complete pantheon of American literature. James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, and Henry James. Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. Ford Madox Ford and Sherwood Anderson. John Dos Passos and William Faulkner. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Henry Roth and Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, Nathanael West, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, James Agee, James Baldwin. John Cheever, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, and James Jones. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Louis Auchincloss and Joan Didion and Gore Vidal. J. D. Salinger and William Gaddis. William Styron and Donald Barthelme. Hubert Selby and Thomas Pynchon. Norman Mailer, of course -- who wrote "The Time of Her Time" about a sexual marathon in the Village. And the five novelists who have sections in this book -- Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, and Dawn Powell.
From The New Yorker, James Thurber, E. B. White, S. J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, and Joseph Mitchell. Among the dozens of playwrights who followed Eugene O'Neill were Tennessee Williams (who hung out at the Cedar Bar), Edward Albee (who saw a graffito asking "Who's Afraid of the Virginia Woolf" in the men's room at the Ninth Circle), Sam Shepard (who worked as a busboy at the Village Gate). Kahlil Gibran, the moony Lebanese mystic whose perennial best-seller The Prophet evokes the mysterious Middle East, actually wrote the book at 51 West 10th Street, where he lived from 1911 until his death in 1931.
Among the poets, the Village was once home to Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant, Edwin Arlington Robinson, John Masefield, and Louis Untermeyer. Conrad Aiken, Carl Sandburg, and Vachel Lindsay. Stephen Vincent Benét and William Rose Benét. Allen Tate and Wallace Stevens -- Mina Loy and Louise Bogan and Elinor Wylie. John Berryman and W. H. Auden. Even Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot lived in the Village for brief periods, and for a longer time Galway Kinnell, John Ashbery, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Allen Ginsberg. A list of poets who didn't live in the Village would be shorter. Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell visited the Village so often they could be called honorary residents, and Sara Teasdale, sadly, committed suicide in a Village hotel.
The roster of Village intellectuals would include Walter Lippmann, Carl Van Vechten, Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Malcolm Cowley, Frances Perkins, Paul Rosefeld, and Kenneth Burke. Add Carl and Mark Van Doren (who told his roommate Joseph Wood Krutch what a liberating act it was, in his first days in the Village, to paint his floors black), Margaret Mead and Meyer Schapiro, Roger Baldwin and Will Durant. Paul Goodman, Dwight Macdonald, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin. Jane Jacobs and Susan Sontag.
The list of artists is equally long. In the nineteenth century, Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, John La Farge, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Stirling Calder and his son Alexander. Diego Rivera and Isamu Noguchi. And of course most of the abstract expressionists, and most of the pop artists who followed, from Andy Warhol to Robert Rauschenberg.
Make a list of the major American photographers and compare it to the list of photographers who have lived in the Village: Mathew Brady, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Weegee, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus.
Hundreds of legendary figures in the performing arts either lived here or began their careers here. Norma Shearer worked as a hat-check girl in a Village nightclub, Jessica Lange as a waitress at the Lion's Head. Bette Davis was a leading Village actress, and Lauren Bacall, who lived at 75 Bank Street, was named "Miss Greenwich Village of 1942." Not just Brando, but also James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Martin Sheen were once Villagers, as were John Houseman and Martha Graham, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland. Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce, Erwin Piscator and Joe Papp, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
George Gershwin was born a few blocks from the Village and spent many a Saturday night pounding the piano at Village parties, including the party after the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue -- and his brother Ira married one of "the Strunsky girls," the three daughters of the legendary Village landlord Papa Strunsky.
I can't ignore the most unlikely Villager of all, Leon Trotsky. Temporarily exiled from Russia, Trotsky briefly settled in New York in the late teens, for a time in the Bronx, then on St. Mark's Place. Village legend claims he worked as a tailor, as a dishwasher, as a movie extra -- but like every Villager, he had larger things on his mind.
Iconography is the essence of the Village's history -- what it stands for has always transcended what it is. To say that the myths should be disentangled from the "reality" -- the usual obligation of the historian -- is to ignore the fact that their entanglement is its history. If iconography is born at the intersection of reality and myth, and if belief in the myth is itself part of the reality, then it's less important to expose the disparity between them than to explore their connections. The story of the Village is, in large part, the stories old Villagers have told new Villagers about former Villagers.
This version of the Village will no doubt disappoint some readers -- old-time Villagers in particular -- who expect lengthy descriptions of famous hangouts, or legendary Village publications, or fabled "characters" (I myself miss Maurice, the intrepid, white-haired "Prince of Bohemia" -- onetime photographer, poet, lover, now only philosopher with a tinkling bell, who picked up stacks of The Village Voice from the circulation department to sell on the subway). And there's no anthropological arcana here either, no architectural details, no walking tours -- dozens of guidebooks provide everything anyone would want to know. If some readers complain about the omissions, where were they when my wife and my editor said the manuscript was already too long?
What I hope I've achieved is something best described by the word "synthesis" -- in other words, to examine the lives of the leading figures of the Village and the legendary anecdotes of Village mythology in a new context. As for the absence of what is called "scholarly apparatus," I will claim a good deal of what is called "original research," and have included an extensive bibliography.
A word about what may seem an overemphasis on the sex lives of the major figures. The Villagers' commitment to self-fulfillment and the personal as the political were inextricably linked to their attitudes about sex. From the first, sexual emancipation was central to the Villagers' vision of an emancipated society -- and indeed, it could even be argued that the degree to which the Village is no longer the locus of bohemia is the degree to which the Village has contributed to winning that battle, from the early days of insistence on the right to premarital sex and access to birth control information to the more recent days of feminism and gay liberation. One of the central convictions of the Villagers' insurrection was the belief that cultural and social change would follow only after personal and sexual liberation. It is easy to forget that throughout most of American history sexual freedom was a taboo rather than a right.
A brief explanation of my use of first names throughout the book. Not an insignificant aspect of what the Villagers called "a revolution of consciousness" -- and parallel to their commitment to self-fulfillment -- was an emphasis on informality and intimacy. So a usage that might be overly familiar in other contexts seems perfectly appropriate in the case of the Village.
Finally, a word on why the book begins in 1910 and more or less ends in 1960. In 1912 the Village became "The Village," a self-conscious bohemian and radical community, and since the sixties -- with the nationalization of bohemia, the replacement of geographic community by electronic community, the blurring of cultural boundaries, and the disappearing hegemony of "the normal" -- the Village, in that familiar phrase, actually hasn't been "what it used to be."
Copyright © 2002 by The Estate of Ross Wetzsteon