In the years before WW1, Greenwich Village developed a reputation as a bohemian neighborhood with low rents, picturesque, meandering side streets and tiny alleys, and a tolerance for political radicalism and eccentric and nonconformist behavior. Most residents may have been working class or remnants of the upper class that populated Henry James or Edith Wharton novels, but the neighborhood’s image was built on its experimental theatres and art galleries, and the “little magazines” that were published there. It was a world populated by political radicals, artists, and writers like John Reed, Emma Goldman, Floyd Dell, Eugene O’Neill, and Georgia O’Keefe among others. They were men and women who were, in a variety of ways, trying to subvert the old order that was to collapse with the war.
In the Post WW11 era, Greenwich Village was still a haven for writers, artists, and deviants and cranks of all sorts. In a small film that never made its mark, Joe Gould’s Secret (Ian Holm as star), about a Village character – loquacious panhandler Joe Gould, who extracted money from people by reciting poetry and doing embarrassingly loud comic turns – we see a cozy, warm, human-scaled Village of legendary hangouts like the Village Vanguard and Minetta Tavern, and large bohemian parties filled with hard-drinking men and women.
A more striking evocation of those years appears in the late New York Times book critic and columnist Anatole Broyard’s posthumous memoir, Kafka Was the Rage: ‘We were all so grateful to be there – it was like a reward for having fought the war. There was a sense of coming back to life, a terrific energy and curiosity . . . . The Village, like New York City itself, had an immense, beckoning sweetness . . . . The Village was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers and painters’.
Broyard’s and Gould’s Village was one of cheap apartments and bargain lofts where one could still survive on a marginal income, pursue one’s art, and live a freer unconventional life, fulfilling one’s dreams. It was the Village of abstract expressionist painters like William De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, of poets like Delmore Schwartz and Frank O’Hara, and artist hangouts like the Waldorf Cafeteria, the Cedar Tavern, and the Artist’s Club where intense debates about the nature of abstract art took place, and traditional definitions of painting were relegated to what many of these painters saw as a ‘philosophical wastebasket’.
When I took the subway from my Bronx home downtown to the Village in the late 50s, I looked to discard my bookish, sexually repressed, lower-middle-class self, and become less fearful and inhibited. I wanted to live more spontaneously, take greater risks, care less about a secure future, and act out some of the wilder fantasies I harboured, but never dared to live out. In essence I wanted to be singular, but not so different that I couldn’t be part of a more deviant community or culture.
In the process of trying to become someone liberated I hung around Cafe Figaro – Jack Kerouac’s favorite spot – self-consciously playing at being a genuine part of the scene. I wore a heavy wool sweater, long plaid scarf, and left my hair uncombed. Exhilarated by it all, I listened to real and ersatz Beat poets reading at coffee houses; and folk singers strumming their guitars in a then much simpler and more communal Washington Square Park; drank beer and talked about the state of American writing (before I had written a word) at Dylan Thomas’s old haunt, the White Horse; I went to a few painters’ parties in raw, pre-gentrified Bowery lofts; and wandering the maze of streets discovered a vital if narrowly parochial and racist Italo-American neighbourhood (dominated by large churches, small, seductive cheese shops, and mysterious storefront social clubs lled with gray-haired men) ensconced in South Village tenements on streets like Sullivan, Thompson, and Carmine.
Most of the people in the Village were far from exotic. I met many people like myself from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, who were trying on new personae. Some had literary and intellectual talent and a genuine vision of an alternative life to what we perceived as our parents’ cramped, limited ones, and to those successful conformist lives analyzed in popular Fifties sociological works like William H. Whyte’s Organization Man and David Riesman’s more scholarly analysis of other-direction in The Lonely Crowd. Others merely put on costumes, indulged in some hip argot, had sex, took a few drugs, and ultimately went back to the more domesticated lives they were fated to live out. Of course, I never became Alan Ginsburg or Gregory Corso. I never went ‘on the road,’ or experimented with drugs. Despite great misgivings and some foolish rebellious gestures (I never completed my Ph.D.), I did not give up my academic career, staying on as one of the house rebels – tame by my lights – but comparatively unconventional given that the majority were temperate and risk-averse even in the volatile Sixties. I did have a few colleagues who acted out in a more extreme fashion and lost their jobs. Also close friends whose much more anarchic and somewhat self-destructive lives expressed a piece of myself festering beneath the responsible and loyal father and husband I turned out to be.
When I finished graduate work, though, I never returned to the Bronx nor did I move to a sanitized, comfortable suburb. I got a job at a branch of New York’s City University, and from 1968 on I have lived with my wife and daughter in a comfortable rent-controlled apartment in the Village. I still get pleasure from living in the Village.
However, as I have grown older and as the Village has changed, it has lost much of its romantic and rebellious aura. The Village is no longer a bohemian oasis. It still contains many art film houses, a number of Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theaters, lively bars and cafés, a wonderful second-hand bookstore, The Strand, and a variety of good, though often overpriced restaurants. There are quaint, low-rise West Village streets, like Commerce, Bedford and Grove that contain many federal style houses. And especially on rainy evenings, when the street lamps re ect iridescently in the puddles, they evoke such an idyllic urban mood that I feel as if I’m walking on Paris’s Left Bank.
But the Village today is also many homeless people lying covered by filthy sleeping bags under building sheds, standardized chain stores like Duane Reade, Starbucks and K Mart; characterless, red and white brick older apartment towers; a main street, 8th, that has been unabashedly ugly and seedy for years, but is finally beginning to be transformed, and NYU. The university is at once a force of stability and a corporate, imperious, ever-expanding institution whose dorms, buses, logos, and innumerable building projects impinge with little sensitivity on large portions of the Village. The high rents, renovated and brand new luxury buildings and the real estate pro ts to be made have also meant the end of the Italo-American enclave, which houses boutiques and elegant restaurants where Italian cheese stores, bakeries and social clubs once reigned.
Yes, artists, writers, and intellectuals still survive in the Village, but few marginal or younger ones can afford to live there any longer (the average rent of a one bedroom Village apartment is over $3,500). They now live in outer borough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens and nearby cities like Hoboken and Jersey City, as well as parts of northern Manhattan that never attracted artists in the past.
Since the Sixties, the whole idea of living the bohemian life has changed, and become democratized. One can be an investment banker, lawyer, or corporate businessman, live a materially comfortable, status-conscious and money-oriented existence – utterly at home in the suburbs – and still be committed to alternative food, medical, musical, religious, and sexual styles. Latte and cappuccino can be found in every upscale mall and neighbourhood café, health food stores selling new age herbal medicines are omnipresent, corporations allow their executives to dress informally for work, gay characters have become staples in sitcoms and films, intermarriage, especially between whites and Hispanics and Asians, is a commonplace. It’s not to say that there are no significant portions of the American population that remain either untouched or antagonistic to alternative cultural styles. But that traditional, comfortable bourgeois that bohemians historically railed against has become a more elusive target too tolerant and too ready to absorb aspects of what was once seen as arty and deviant to be seen as ‘the enemy’.
The Village’s artistic cachet has diminished, but it continues to draw people with the promise of a more liberated life. At seventy-six, whatever fantasies linger, I rarely think about transforming myself. But I have always envied people who, as they grew older, kept thrashing around for new selves and fresh existential truths. And it’s still possible the itch for renewal may strike one last time. If I decide to engage in that quixotic quest, the Village is still one of the best places to be.
By Leonard Quart