Sunday, December 16, 2012

38. A Walk Through Greenwich Village

To find respite from the horrors of nineteenth-century New York, I invite you to come with me on a casual walk through Greenwich Village.  The West Village, of course, since the East Village is a whole different story.  The West Village is well trekked, having loads of historic sites; whenever I go out, I see visitors with their nose in a guidebook, figuring where to go next.

                                                                             joe goldberg
          Let's begin on Bleecker Street just downstairs, with the celebrated Magnolia Bakery.  Yes, tourists still flock there, sometimes whole busloads, and take photos of one another in front of the bakery.  I have yet to buy one of their famous cupcakes, good as they are said to be.  A vegan, I'm not tempted to join the throngs gobbling gooey goodies.  But I bear them no ill will (the gobblers, not the cupcakes), even when the line winds around the corner onto West 11th Street past our entrance, or the gobblers squat on our doorstep to devour their spoils, even though a small park beckons to them just across the street.  Notice the mailbox, too; if anyone ever gets a letter from me, that's where it was mailed.

For these tasty globs, some would sell their soul.
 Andy C

          Walking east on West 11th Street, just before we come to Fifth Avenue we see, at 18 West 11th, a handsome townhouse whose jutting bay window seems out of place in this neighborhood of Greek Revival row houses.   And no wonder: it's a replacement of a nineteenth-century townhouse demolished in 1970 when a bomb factory of the radical Weather Underground exploded, destroying the entire residence and shattering the genteel calm of the West Village.  It took nine days to sift through the rubble to find body parts and determine how many had died there: three, though two others, one the daughter of the house, had been upstairs at the time of the explosion and managed to escape.  My thought at the time: little children shouldn't play with bombs.  A simplification, perhaps, but I thought the explosion was justified, in a sense, though it was rough on the neighbors, not to mention the absent parents, who had no idea what their little girl was up to in the basement.  And where were the bombs to be used?  At a dance for noncommissioned officers that evening at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to bring the horrors of the Vietnam War home to the dancers and the public, though maybe also to demolish the main library (where I used to study by the hour) of Columbia University.  What they had against the library I can't imagine.

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          Speaking of libraries, let's have a look at my local public library, the Jefferson Market Library on
Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street: a marvelous renovation with Gothic windows and a lofty clock tower with a firewatchers' balcony, and inside, a handsome spiral staircase flanked by stained glass windows, and a spacious reference room with computers and yes, even books, in the basement.  (I don't use the reference room much these days, since so much information is available online.)  It too has a history.  Built in the 1870s, it was originally a courthouse, and there, in 1879, the notorious abortionist Madame Restell was arraigned, following her arrest by Anthony Comstock.  Long ago, there was a market next door, but in the early 1930s the Women's House of Detention was constructed next to the courthouse, a local Bastille none too popular with neighbors, since the inmates and their friends down below on the sidewalk would converse in shrill tones with a generous dose of expletives: another affront to West Village gentility.  (These exchanges graced my ears many a time in the evening.)  Also, there were stories of racial discrimination and abuse.  Finally, in 1971, the prison was demolished (only WBAI, stalwart a foe of gentrification, lamented its passing), and the Jefferson Market Garden, a small but delightful park, replaced it.  Which was fine by me: the more greenery in this city, the better!

          Of course no tour of the Village would be complete without a look at the Stonewall Inn, where it all began back in 1969.  Yes, it's still there, having presumably had a series of owners since then, and I often walk past it.  A simple two-story structure, the ground floor with a brick façade.  Believe it or not, I've never been in there.  But I do wonder who lives upstairs and how they like having a shrine beneath them, not to mention the brouhaha of the annual Gay Pride Parade passing  below.

          Just across the street is Sheridan Square, once an open space available for community meetings and political rallies, and used as a drilling ground and playground; only since 1982  has it been a garden.  Dominating it is a statue of Phil Sheridan, the Northern cavalry hero of the Civil War, first erected in 1936.  Now, quite within his gaze, are four life-size statues, a man with a man, and a woman with a woman, each couple showing signs of affection.  What the stern-faced general thinks of all this is hard to say.


File:NYC - Greenwich Village - Gay Street.JPG
                                                           Jean-Christophe Benoist 

          When I first came to New York in the 1950s, I heard that there were renters who would give anything to have an address on Gay Street.  Gay Street is a street just one block long between Christopher and Waverley Place, one of those charming little side streets so common in the Village.  I always thought it was named for John Gay, one of the Founding Fathers, but now I learn that it takes its name from an early landowner.  Why this address should be so coveted, I can't imagine.

                                                                        Beyond My Ken
          Film crews are often busy on the Village streets, sometimes doing films with a historical background.  And why not, when the row houses on many Village streets seem unchanged from an earlier period.  Consider this photo of Washington Square North, between Fifth Avenue and University Place: a solid block of Greek Revival houses built in 1832-33.  Take away the car, avoid the air conditioners if possible, and the looming buildings in the distance, and you could be back in nineteenth-century New York.  Behind the preserved façades, some of these buildings have been gutted to make room for apartments, but from the outside you would never know it.  And what was "Greek" about them?  Chiefly the columns flanking the entrances.  In congested New York there was hardly room for the spacious porticos fronting Monticello and many a prebellum Southern mansion.

          Preceding the Greek Revival style was the Federal style row house, with roofs sloping toward the street and adorned with dormer windows, as seen in these King Street residences from the 1820s.  They are fewer in the Village, where Greek Revival tends to dominate, but you will see them here and there.  And brownstones?  They came in in the 1850s and 1860s, and are found mostly farther uptown.
                                                           Beyond My Ken
                                                   Beyond My Ken  

          When strolling through the Village, one should always be on the lookout for little side courts off the main streets that one could easily walk past without even noticing them  Here, for example, seen through the grilled gate of the entrance, is Milligan Place, a private court off Sixth Avenue between West 10th and West 11th Streets.  Four three-story brick houses built in 1855 open onto it.  I've often walked past it, sometimes forget to have a look.

          Earlier I mentioned the Greek Revival row houses facing Washington Square Park.  That park too has quite a history.  Once farmland, it was bought by the city in 1797 for a potter's field.  When yellow fever epidemics plagued the city in the early nineteenth century, victims were buried here, well removed from the settled part of Manhattan.  When the cemetery was closed in 1825, some twenty thousand bodies had been buried there; though few realize it, most are still there today.  In 1826 the area became a parade ground for volunteer militia, and then, in the 1830s, a desirable residential area with handsome Greek Revival houses.  Where gentility resides, can parkland fail to follow?  In 1849/1850 the first park was laid out, and the first fountain installed in 1852.  Even after gentility moved farther uptown, the park remained.  Fifth Avenue, lined then with handsome private residences and hailed as the axis of elegance, ran northward from there, spiked at intervals by the spires of fashionable churches.

                                                                                Petri Krohn
          In 1892, to celebrate the nation's first president, the Washington Square Arch, designed by the famous architect Stanford White, was erected, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; in the process, many graves were disturbed.  One might think that such an imposing marble embellishment would have guaranteed the park's preservation, but no, in 1935 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, without consulting the community, announced a plan to redesign the park.  Local residents mobilized to resist the renovation and finally managed to block it.  But Moses, a master builder whose grandiose schemes often disrupted or destroyed existing neighborhoods, wasn't done with the park.  In 1952 he announced another plan to have two streets flank the arch and run on south through the park.  This renewed assault again aroused the opposition of local residents, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who mounted a campaign not only to save the park but also to ban all vehicles from it.  A David vs. Goliath fight followed, with many legal twists and turns, but David won: in 1963 the park was finally saved and vehicles were banned from it forever.  (It doesn't hurt to have a former First Lady on your side, though the long struggle was led by other activists.)

          More struggles have followed, often pitting students, folksingers, drug dealers, and peaceful residents against New York's Finest, whose efforts to preserve the public peace sometimes disrupt it.  Yes, drug dealers have at times been active in the park.  But in a more innocent earlier era I recall one balmy Saturday evening when a police squad car drove through the sacred spaces of the park, forcing people off the paved path onto the lawn, following which the police yelled at the trespassers, "Get off the grass!  Get off the grass!" Nothing had provoked this intervention; all had been peaceful.  A wonderful example of how the guardians of order keep the unruly populace in order.

          In 2007 the city began redesigning the park, including a realignment of the fountain with the arch.  Just why such a realignment was necessary, I couldn't imagine; the lack of it didn't seem to bother anyone.  More legal battles followed, but the realignment did take place, to the satisfaction of contractors and geometry freaks, if no one else.  In New York City changes never come easy, nor are they always needed.  So there you have it: from farmland to potter's field to parade ground to desirable residential area to treasured park defended vigorously by the local residents.  Today the magnificent arch rises nobly above the graves of forgotten thousands, and the fountain bubbles joyously.

          Finally, to end on a wild, weird note, let's have a glance at the Village Halloween Parade.  Initiated in 1974, it used to come down Bleecker Street right under our windows; Bob and I often watched from our fire escape, but to get the full blast of it, you need to watch at ground level.  Alas, in time it became too big for narrow Village streets, so in 1985 it was moved over to Sixth Avenue.  We haven't watched it since then, because it is no longer "our" parade, but it surely reaches more people now.  From the earlier parades I have vivid memories of costumes and masks galore, and more specifically, stilt walkers perilously poised on their stilts, a file of mustached nuns, and a samba band whose blaring rhythms made your blood and brain pulse.

                                                                                                                                                                                   Joe Shlabotnik

                                    Wendy R. Williams

File:NYC Halloween Parade - Twopaperfaces.jpg

Thought for the day:  Energy is eternal delight.  (Not my creation, though I don't recall where I encountered it.  Still, I've often pondered it.)

(c) 2012  Clifford Browder


  1. Thank you for that wonderful piece. The Village was one of the first places I visited in 1957, when I arrived in the U.S. with $75—the walk was free and memorable.

    Many years later, my niece, then a teenager visited from Denmark and I took her to The Electric Circus. After that, as we approached Sheridan Square, we saw a huge celebratory crowd of people. A black man of Dave Van Ronk's stature had his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders. "What's going on?", I asked.

    "It's the gays, man," he said, "they're revolting!"

    It was the night of the Stonewall raid.

    I recall vividly seeing grim-faced police in riot gear lined up, shoulder to shoulder, to form a wall between the lively crowd and the rest of us. Each held a nightstick firmly before him and they almost seemed not to breathe.

    Out of nowhere, came a flamboyant friend of Dorothy's, swirled in a smart pirouette, sashayed down the line of New York's finest, and stopped briefly in front of one of them.

    "My dear," he said, staring the policeman in the face, "you look positively terrifying!"

    1. Thanks for the comment. I've mentioned the origins of the Gay Pride Parade in a vignette on my blog. But I who lived not far away ignored the whole thing at the time. But you were there and saw it all beginning to unfold. A bit of luck, maybe, but congrats anyway. I publish a new post every Sunday, always about New York past or present.

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