New York - New York City - Greenwich Village
Area: Spring St. on the south to 14th St. on the north; from West St. east to Broadway.
A nation, coming into its own artistically after an era of ruthless industrial expansion, of materialism and strait-laced conventionality, seized upon Greenwich Village as a symbol of revolt in the ferment of postwar years. The "Village" was the center of the American Renaissance or of artiness, of political progress or of long-haired radical men and short-haired radical women, of sex freedom or of sex license -- dependent upon the point of view.
Greenwich Village, actually, is a cross section of American urban life. Here are old families in their gracious mansions; bankers and clerks in tall apartment buildings; and a foreign-born population of some twenty-five thousand, largely Irish and Italian, in tenements. If in 1939 there were more serious artists and writers, more "bohemians" in renovated old houses, more colorful tea rooms and wild night clubs than in other American centers, the number each year was lessening.
In the years just preceding and following the World War the political, artistic, and literary rebels who flocked to the Village gave it a character unique in this country. The literary history of Greenwich Village, however, begins much earlier. Here Tom Paine spent the last years of his life. Poe lived, drank, and worked at several Village addresses. Walt Whitman lived in the vicinity, Henry James was born near Washington Square (he named one of his books for the square), and Mark Twain adopted the neighborhood for his city home. In 1896 John Masefield, English poet laureate, made his living here by scrubbing the floors of a saloon.
But the story of Greenwich Village is the rounded story of an old and lively American community, at once typical and individual. Here exploring parties were entertained by the natives of the hamlet of Sapokanican; and, in return, with the earliest settlement of lower Manhattan, the Dutch drove the Indiansn from this neighborhood. In 1633, while most of the island north of Wall Street was still a wilderness, Governor Van Twiller was cultivating here a large tobacco plantation -- Bossen Bouwerie (Farm in the Woods) -- and built his home at the foot of the present Charlton Street. During the fall of 1679, the Labadist missionaries, Danckaerts and Sluyter, visited what had grown to be a small village, where they drank "some good beer." In 1740, Sir Peter Warren, vice admiral of the British Navy and at that time commander of the fleet in New York, chose the locality for his home.
The Village grew throughout the Colonial period as a community of the wealthy. Here was the great Brevoort estate, sold in 1762 to one John Smith, a large slaveholder; the Bleecker farm; and the mansions of the Bayards, the Jauncys, and the De Lanceys. A popular drive for New York's fashionable reached the Village by way of Greenwich Street, which then ran along the river; when wet weather rendered this route impassable, the drive was made along the Bowery to an extension of what is now Greenwich Avenue, with a monument erected to General James Wolfe, hero of the French and Indian War, as its goal.
A spurt was given to the growth of the community following the Revolution, particularly in the neighborhood of the State prison, erected at the foot of Tenth Street; that institution, like the Bedlam Madhouse of Elizabethan days, was considered a residential attraction.
An epidemic of smallpox in 1739 in the Battery region gave impetus to the first hasty migration of the well-to-do to the healthier climate of the Village; scourges of yellow fever in 1797, 1799, 1803, and 1805 resulted in similar stampedes northward in crowded stages, and goods-piled carriages and pushcarts. Some drifted south again when conditions became normal, but others remained in their new homes. The greatest of all the yellow fever plagues, in 1822, brought such a rush of refugees that the Brooklyn ferry changed its course from New York to a point opposite the Village. Makeshift dwellings and business houses were thrown up almost overnight; lanes and cowpaths winding haphazardly through the neighborhood became busy streets. One of these lanes, during the 1822 epidemic, quartered temporarily the counting houses of Wall Street, and still bears the name Bank Street.
From 1825 to 1850, the population of Greenwich Village quadrupled, its inhabitants being largely of middle-class and well-to-do American stock. But for the next half-century, its growth, although steady, was slower than that of New York as a whole. While the city moved steadily northward, along Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and other great arteries, the Village, with its narrow erratic streets, remained a quiet backwater. As late as 1875, since only 32 per cent of its population was foreign-bornunusual for Manhattan -- the section was known as the "American Ward."
An area so central, however, could not escape the ever encroaching poorer classes. Already numbers of Irish immigrants had moved into the neighborhood, and later a Negro invasion, starting at the southeastern edge of the Village and moving north to Washington Square itself, heralded the first major change in the district. Property values decreased. Save for the families in the aristocratic stronghold of Washington Square and north of it, and a few tenacious ones scattered throughout the southwest, the older and wealthier inhabitants joined the continual migration uptown.
Then, in the 1890's, came another invasion of Irish lower in the economic scale than the compatriots who preceded them. The Italians -- displacing the Negroes who left their last stronghold in Gay Street in the early 1920's -- moved up from the south in even greater numbers than the Irish, meeting them in the neighborhood of Sheridan Square.
By 1910, the transformation of Greenwich Village had been completed. The American Ward had become Ward 9, a foreign ward, leading its life of pushcart, café, fiesta, and bar, its land values as cheap as in nearly any settled section of the city, its people faithful followers of the Roman Catholic Church and of Tammany.
A second change of a different nature began in Greenwich Village shortly before 1910. It had a slow, quiet beginning, scarcely perceptible to the neighborhood itself; yet it was to make that dingy backwater celebrated wherever the English language is spoken. At that period materialism had assumed an unprecedented importance in American life. Ambition not directed toward the goal of a large bank account was almost alien to thought and education, and, like most things alien, was regarded with distrust and scorn. Above all was this attitude adopted toward the struggling artist seeking satisfaction from completion of a poem or picture.
A natural result was the withdrawal of the rebel artist into protective groups. Many of these groups gravitated to the larger cities -- Kansas City to St. Louis, St. Louis to Chicago -- and finally, from all over the country to the metropolis.
In Greenwich Village the earliest rebels found comparative quiet, winding streets, houses with a flavor of the Old World -- and cheap rents. The local people existed largely to be traded with; otherwise they were passed unnoticed as the Villager moved from group meeting to group meeting.
These meetings -- after a day of hard work or of grandiose planning -at first took place in their homes, in a back room in Washington Square South, in an attic on West Fourth Street. The room was often sparsely furnished, partly for lack of funds to buy furniture, partly as a revolt from overfurnished, late-Victorian backgrounds. Often candles replaced electricity. A few pictures of their own or of their friends' painting and a batik hung on the walls. They talked of their work, of the arts, or of sex and Freud; and were secretly thrilled at doing so in mixed company.
They discussed Socialism, the I.W.W., woman's suffrage, and the philistinism of the folks back home. The conversation ranged from brilliant to silly, but always, instinctively or consciously, it was unconventional. And throughout, they drank endless glasses of tea -- for these were the days before Prohibition and bath-tub gin.
As their numbers grew, they found outside meeting places of their own, places more esoteric than the Italian restaurants they first frequented, such as Bertolloti's on West Third Street, Renganeschi's on West Tenth Street, Gallup's on Greenwich Avenue. The first of these new meeting places was Polly Holliday's, on the north side of Fourth Street, between MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue. Here commercialism, even on the part of the proprietress, scarcely existed. Meals were written on the cuff, never to be erased; but all "true" Villagers were welcome so long as they kept the conversation flowing well into the night. The Mad Hatter was another such eating place; with Polly's it entertained many who were later to become noted in art, science, and politics. There was the Samovar, Sam Swartz's TNT, the Purple Pup, the Pirate's Den, and Romany Marie's, the last-named still in existence. For drinks, at the corner of Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, there was the Golden Swan, popularly known as the "Hell Hole," frequented by Villagers and toughs alike, and on Greenwich Avenue, Luke O'Connor's bar, where John Masefield worked. Finally, as a degree of affluence came to many of the Villagers, the cafés of the Brevoort and Lafayette -- hotels continental in flavor and esteemed by cosmopolitans -- were invaded, for drinks, cards, chess, and for discussion. Always the line between groups was sharply drawn; there were as yet no big business neighbors, no white-collar workers, no respectable well-to-do drawn here by the love or the glamor of the arts. There were only the Villager and Ward Niner, and the former walked from home to Polly's and from Polly's to the Brevoort through a little world of his own.
In the theater, from modest beginnings, the Villagers all but revolutionized the American stage. A group, loosely organized at first, gave performances in a converted stable at 133 MacDougal Street. Its members, sometimes actors, sometimes playwrights, called themselves the Provincetown Players, after their so-titled wharf theater in Cape Cod's Provincetown, and included such people as George Cram Cook and his wife, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O'Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, her sister, Norma, and Robert Edmond Jones. And if this group gave the country modern playwrights, the group that preceded it for a short while at the same address -- the Washington Square Players -- with Helen Westley, Philip Moeller, Lawrence Langner and others -- gave America an organization, which, moving uptown as the Theater Guild, taught the incredulous Broadway producers that living art could bring box-office receipts.