Author John Strausbaugh paints the colorful history that permeates Greenwich Village
By Angela Barbuti
Life as we know it was greatly influenced by what once happened below 14th Street. “This place, for almost 400 years, was like a magnet for artists and a refuge for misfits and outcasts,” said John Strausbaugh, who literally walked miles around the Village on his journey to rediscover the quirkiness, charm, and rebellion that is part of the neighborhood’s rich saga. His book, The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village, is much more than a history lesson. It delves deep into the characters that made the Village the unique area that it was, while vividly setting the scene – from speakeasies during Prohibition to coffeehouses in the 1950s. The events that occurred in these places make us realize that history was made in the Village and it was undoubtedly a center for creativity and a catalyst for change. The book also evokes a yearning for the past, coupled with a desire to preserve what’s left of this cultural hamlet that can only exist in New York City.
You talk about how Edgar Allan Poe lived in the Village and was claimed as the first bohemian – and how NYU eventually knocked down his house.
I think that’s the last thing he would have wanted people to say about him. He wanted mainstream success and never had it, except a little bit when The Raven came out. Have you ever walked past Furman Hall? NYU has a talent for hiring famous architects and having them do their worst work for them. They knocked down one of the houses that was called The Poe House.
Then, they basically went to Home Depot and bought some bricks, doors, and windows and stuck it in the side of this building and called it The Poe House. It’s a double slap in the face.
From your book, I learned that Washington Square Park wasn’t even a park at first.
It was a swampy meadow and mass burial ground for yellow fever and cholera victims. It was a parade ground, then Washington Square. It was sort of a park, but it wasn’t until the ‘50s that they closed off the streets. You used to be able to drive straight through and turn around and go back up 5th Avenue.
How did the first subway line change the Village in the early 1900s?
A lot of people then said, “This is the end of Greenwich Village.” There was no Seventh Avenue or Sixth Avenue. It was isolated and had all those twisty, goofy streets that it has still. They disrupted the whole avenue for more than two years to dig that Seventh Avenue transfer. The subway was bringing a lot more tourists. Then they did Sixth Avenue later. To this day, those are the two least ‘Village’ parts of Greenwich Village.
In the 1950s coffeehouses emerged.
We think of them as folk music places, but at first, they weren’t. People played checkers, chess, peaknuckle and canasta. The musicians were considered a distraction. Once they saw that the folk music was bringing people in, all the sudden it was in every coffeehouse in the Village.
Some of the venues you write about – Café Wha?, the White Horse Tavern, Cherry Lane Theatre, the Village Vanguard – are still there today.
My sister came up from Baltimore and wanted to go to the Village Vanguard. I think we were the only English speakers in the place, but we heard a great band. And I love that little room, they haven’t fixed it up too much. You know you’re in a place that’s been there forever.
You say that Café Wha? was once a basket house. Explain that concept.
It was a place where anybody can try out, and at Café Wha? that meant anybody. Opera singers, vaudevillians, comedians, and eventually Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. But they weren’t going to pay them. So if you were smart, you’d have a pretty girl go around with the basket and people would just drop change in it.
How did the Village play a role in the antiwar movement?
Not surprisingly, it was the epicenter of the antiwar movement in New York. All the antiwar groups were there. The women’s prison was there, so if you were arrested in any antiwar protest and were a woman, you got brought there.
Explain the Stonewall Riots in ’69 and what they did for the gay liberation movement.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the gay and lesbian rights movement started very quietly and modeled on the Civil Rights Movement. They wanted to be accepted into the norm, not live lifestyles outside of it. The next generation came along and they were done with that. On three nights, in June of ’69, they just finally had had it and went nuts and rioted on the streets. It was the beginning of the national gay liberation movement.
One chapter focuses on celebrities like Dylan and Lennon moving back in the ‘70s.
When he lived there, he was just little Bob Dylan, and when he came back, he was a global popstar. John Lennon and Yoko had the same sort of trouble. At first it was fine, but then people started zeroing in on them, and some of those are going to be crazies.
For the first year, people left them alone. But by the second year, it got to be nuts and that’s why they moved up to the Dakota because there was a doorman and they were up on a high floor.
How did the atmosphere change as the AIDS epidemic broke out?
It devastated not just the gay Village, but the entire Village. You had the hospital there that was the Ground Zero for AIDS patients. Everybody had scores of friends dying all the time. Because it literally decimated the Village, it opened up a lot of space and landlords instantly started moving in people with a lot of money. In the mid ‘80s, the neighborhood started to become too expensive for anyone else to live. You don’t see it written that way, but anyone who was there then says it.
You talk about how ironic it is to see a Brooks Brothers in the Village.
In The Village! Who would have thought? There’s that sign that people have in their windows: “Less Marc Jacobs, more Jane Jacobs.” Marc Jacobs is a local, but still, how many Marc Jacobs stores do you need in Greenwich Village?
Do you consider Brooklyn to be what Greenwich Village was back in the day?
Yes, in the sense that that’s where the arty kids and bohemians are going now. But no, because the Village was centrally located and within reach of everybody. The money that chased everyone out of Lower Manhattan and Manhattan is continuing to chase them in Brooklyn. Now, kids who just moved into Bed Stuy are moving out because they can’t afford it. When you can’t afford Bed Stuy, things have gotten a little strange.
Join John at these talks and signings:
June 8th at La Mama’s Coffeehouse Chronicles
June 13th at Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space www.morusnyc.org
Trackback from your site.