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Greenwich Village

Manhattan Boro, New York County, NY

Greenwich Village as Observed in 1939 [1]

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 Indians 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-born — unusual 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, cafe, 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 over-furnished, 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 cafes 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. A later venture, Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory, in the old Theatre Francais, 105 West Fourteenth Street, carried on the tradition of a "different" theater until 1933, when it gave way to the Theater Union, which produced plays with a pronounced social theme.

Literature, in group form, found expression in a number of papers and magazines of varying worth. They ranged from purely literary to primarily political, and lasted from one issue to several years. Two of them, the Seven Arts and the Masses, were forced to discontinue publication because of their opposition to the World War. The former, edited by Louis Untermeyer and James Oppenheim, with a number of now noted contributors, was revolutionary in content. The Masses was radical politically; following its suppression in 1918, Max Eastman, Art Young, John Reed, and Floyd Dell, were placed on trial, charged with a conspiracy to obstruct recruiting and prevent enlistment. The trial was an event of nation-wide interest, the tension of which on the climactic day was disturbed only by the snoring of the defendant Young. The Masses reappeared in 1919 as the Liberator, and later, after another lapse, as the present New Masses.

First, however, among organized groups expressing the revolt of the Villagers was the "A" Club, at One Fifth Avenue, with the writer, Mary Heaton Vorse, Rose O'Neill, creator of the Kewpies, and Frances Perkins, later Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, among its leaders — a group devoted to the advancement of women's suffrage and social reforms. The Liberal Club, with a similar membership, followed, moving from East Seventeenth Street to 133 MacDougal Street, at which address it gave houseroom and financial aid to the Washington Square Players and, later, to the Provincetown Players.

The liberals were beginning to exert an influence not only on New York but on American thinking, when the entrance of the United States into the World War altered radically the intellectual aspects of the Village. Repression of liberal and radical activities during and for several years following the war was, of course, the major cause of the change. Some Villagers had been ardent supporters of the war; the nebulous liberalism and radicalism of many others were dissipated. Meanwhile, however, fame had come to some of these early rebels, success to many others, maturity to all. Many of the successful moved, with their families, to Connecticut, Westchester County, and farther afield; the unsuccessful trekked back home to take up their old life where they had left off a decade earlier. A nucleus remained to greet the postwar rebels attracted to a now celebrated Bohemia.

By 1939 there were more Greenwich Villagers than in the days preceding the war, but these young people were leading a life not greatly dissimilar to that of many of their contemporaries throughout the country. The Village tearooms and night clubs, for the most part no longer the haunts of the Bohemian, were patronized largely by out-of-town tourists and sensation seekers from outlying boroughs. Large apartment buildings and rents were rising as the well-to-do and white-collar workers, attracted by the central location, by vastly improved transportation facilities, and, perhaps, by the glamor associated with the address, moved in. And as the foreigner had for two decades retreated before the advance of the Villager, so already the Villager had begun to retreat to outlying districts before the wealthier newcomer. The passionate individualism of the Village was giving way to community singing and similar neighborhood activities. Bobby Edwards' erratic, "villagy" Quill was replaced by the highly successful commercial Villager, which exalted the conventional, small-town aspects of the district. If such institutions as the semi-annual open-air art show in Washington Square — where three-quarters of the exhibitors have been non-Villagers — still exist, they are inspired by the legend rather than by the actuality of the community.

Much of the old aspect, and many of the old people, such as Theodore Dreiser and Vilhjalmur Stefansson, returned, however. Papa Strunsky still rails at the tenant in arrears in his West Third Street building — and at times lets the promising writer or painter stay on, the bill unpaid. Literary teas (with tea scarcely in evidence) are still popular. The easy unconventionality, the charming old houses, comfortable as an old shoe, still invite the Villager, emerging from the subway after a visit to more formal neighborhoods, to drag off his or her hat and swing along home.

  1. Federal Writers' Project, Works Progress Administration, New York City Guide, American Guide Series, The Guilds' Committee or Federal Writers' Publications, Inc., Random House Publishers, New York, 1939.

Street Names
10th Street East • 10th Street West • 11th Street East • 11th Street West • 12th Street East • 12th Street West • 14th Street East • 14th Street West • 3rd Street West • 4th Street West • 5th Avenue • 6th Avenue • 8th Street East • 8th Street West • 9th Street East • 9th Street West • Avenue of the Americas • Bank Street • Barrow Street • Bedford Street • Bethune Street • Bleecker Street • Broadway • Carmine Street • Charles Street • Charlton Street • Clarkson Street • Downing Street • Gansevoort Street • Greene Street • Greenwich Avenue • Greenwich Street • Grove Street • Horatio Street • Houston Street West • Hudson Street • Jane Street • Jones Street • King Street • LaGuardia Place • Leroy Street • MacDougal Street • Mercer Street • Morton Street • Perry Street • Prince Street • Saint Lukes Place • Sullivan Street • Thompson Street • University Place • Vandam Street • Washington Place • Washington Square East • Washington Square North • Washington Square South • Washington Square West • Washington Street • Waverly Place • West Street

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