Nov 14, 2010

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village
by Walking Off the Big Apple

Flipping through Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today. On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church is still there, but buildings housing the law school have replaced adjacent older buildings. The park itself is recognizable only if memory presents images of what the place looked like two years ago before the advent of the ongoing renovations. The trees are much bigger now.

8th Avenue and Jane Street
Many of the older residents are gone, of course, and with them, many of the old places that gave the Village its character. Turning to the 1976 book, here are pictures of Circle in the Square (in its theater on Bleecker St.), Sullivan Street Playhouse (with The Fantasticks still playing), the Conca D’Oro bakery, the Bleecker Street Cinema (now a stationary shop and a Duane Reade), the Bitter End, Granados Restaurant on MacDougal, the Coach House (once a famous posh restaurant on Waverly), Dauber & Pine bookshop on Fifth Avenue, Trude Heller’s nightclub, the Village Gate, and the Gaslight

By the late 1970s, two decades before TV's Carrie Bradshaw arrived with her ambitions, shoes and tiny cakes, the gentrification of the Village was well underway. Stories of the old Village began to circulate, and perhaps many stretched credulity. A writer for New York Magazine, reviewing three new restaurants for the April 24, 1978 issue, argued that many locals remembered “a variety and abundance of eating places” in the Village, when in fact, the author says, they were mostly uninteresting spaghetti joints. He writes, “These days, when the Village is just another high-rent district (its vestigial bohemians the well-fed sort), money has lured what eccentrics never did.” Money is a good thing, he implied, bringing quality French restaurants to the poor Villagers. 

Aside from the question of whether or not eccentrics eat well, the Village’s expensive property values in our day continue to make the area challenging for bohemians without resources. According to Forbes Magazine’s 2010 list of America’s most expensive zip codes, two zip codes that straddle the Village – 10014 and 10012 – came in at 5th and 9th place, respectively. With the average price for townhouses in the low millions and monthly rentals in the thousands, one wonders how anyone without inherited wealth, a successful entertainment career, or a management position in the financial services industry may be able or even inclined to take part in the bohemian legacy. By the way, two of the restaurants reviewed in the 1978 article, Café Loup on East 13th and the Knickerbocker on 9th and University Place, are still kicking. The third, La Métarie on West 10th, has closed. The neighborhood currently sports some of the city’s most celebrated upscale, if often unaffordable, restaurants.

The Village lives on in many ways, and not just in the physical bricks and mortal of its charming buildings and streets. Many longtime residents of the neighborhood, some with money, others with under-market academic arrangements (including yours truly), and others with limited means in rent-controlled housing, continue to nurture the singularity of the Village. They do so by patronizing area businesses, sustaining the area’s intellectual life, celebrating its history, and by fighting, or at least colorfully complaining about, the relentless encroachment of chain stores (especially drugstores and bank branches), the corporate university, and out-of-scale development. They can tell you stories, because they remember.

There’s still much to do in Greenwich Village. 

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

Caffe Reggio
1. Drink coffee and read a book in a local cafe. No plastics or memory boards, just paper. Sitting at a table, drinking coffee, and occasionally glancing up from a book to think and watch the world go by should not have to involve locating an electrical outlet. Hanging out in the cafes and independent bookstores helps keep alive the traditions of public discourse and a democratic culture. Favorite places to engage in these pastimes in Greenwich Village include Caffe Reggio, La Lanterna di Vittorio, Jack's, Joe's, Grey Dog, and Snice.

2. Hang out in Washington Square Park. The folksinger's protest in Washington Square Park on Sunday, April 9, 1961 represents the spirit of Greenwich Village. On that bright sunny day, members of the active folk music community brought guitars to the park to protest an ordinance that prohibited singing in the park. After the singers dispersed, policemen started to beat up some of the spectators. The event was recorded. Dan Drasin, a burgeoning 18-year-old filmmaker, took his cameras and some black and white film to document the protest. The resulting 17-minute film, SUNDAY, captures that gritty determination of New Yorkers at the beginning of the 1960s, and many consider it to be the first protest film of the era. Give thanks to the folksingers singing songs of freedom.

3. Walk by Chumley's once a week to check on its progress. The beloved former speakeasy at 86 Bedford Street, a longtime favorite for writers and intellectuals, has been closed since part of the structure collapsed in 2007. Interested parties, especially New York bloggers, try to keep everyone informed on the slow progress of rebuilding. 

4. Walk down W. 10th, the most beautiful block in the city. Elegant architecture lines the street, including a row of townhouses at numbers 20 to 38 designed by James Renwick in 1856-58 and apartment houses in the Federalist style.

5. Get a chess lesson and play chess with the guys in the park. The Village Chess Shop, opened in 1972 on Thompson, and now at Zinc, 82 W. 3rd). Check out the chess scene on the park’s northwest corner (moved from the southwest in the recent renovations). 

flyer for recent rally protesting
NYU's proposed tower
6. Protest inappropriate building construction in the historic neighborhood. Often the developer that causes the most consternation is New York University (NYU), the expanding university with a major presence here. Quoting the authors of the book discussed at the outset, “New York University’s expansion in recent years has upset many New Yorkers.” That was 1976. Before then, the university had leveled many blocks of older buildings south of the park to pave the way for the out-of-scale superblocks of Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, the latter designed by a young I. M. Pei, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ironically, now these large blocks are in danger with the school’s long-range plan. “Save Our Superblocks” is one of the latest protest slogans. 

7. Make your own list of essential stops. Walking Off the Big Apple recommends, among several historic places: Marie's Crisis, White Horse Tavern, the narrowest house, Twin Peaks, Patchin Place, Grove Court, Judson Memorial Church, Milligan Place, Northern Dispensary, and the north side of Washington Square. Forgive me if I also recommend Palazzo Chupi, artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s pink Texas-size hi-rise mansion on W. 11th Street.  

8. Explore St. Luke's Place. This designation for a beautiful block of Leroy Street in the lower West Village west of 7th Avenue is worth visiting just for its charming vine-covered Greek and Renaissance Revival townhouses, but it also exudes some powerful cultural and historical caché. Along with mayor Jimmy Walker, writers Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore, and Theodore Dreiser lived here. 

9. Familiarize yourself with the Minettas. Minetta Street, starting at Minetta Lane and winding down to near Sixth Avenue and Bleecker, follows the course of the old stream, Minetta Brook. Minetta Lane is the name for a short street between MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue. At the top of the lane sits Cafe Wha? on the north side and the Minetta Tavern on the south side of the lane's intersection with MacDougal. Read more here.

10. Check out a book or do research at the Jefferson Market Library Branch. The building, previously a courthouse and a woman's prison, enjoys a notorious past, one that includes the murder trial of architect Stanford White. Mae West was held here on obscenity charges.

11. Memorialize those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, a terrible fire killed 146 garment workers working inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building at 23-29 Washington Place. At the time of the fire, the building housed a factory that made women's blouses and employed 600 workers, most of them immigrant women and many of them quite young. They worked long shifts and were paid low wages. When the fatal fire broke out in the factory, seamstresses on the ninth floor found one staircase full of smoke and flames, and the other exit door was locked. Many jumped to their deaths. The shame of the working conditions revealed in the tragedy helped spur growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (now part of UNITE, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). 

12. Visit Grey Art Gallery at NYU. 100 Washington Square East. Located in the university’s main building and on the site of the original nineteenth century NYU structure, the university’s fine arts museum blends scholarship with innovative exhibitions. 

13. Take your own Dylan tour. Start with Jones Street, the small street depicted on the cover of Dylan's second studio album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Provincetown Playhouse
14. See an Off-Broadway play. Greenwich Village enjoys a rich heritage of innovative live theatre from the days of the Provincetown Playhouse in the era of Eugene O’Neill to the long-running production of The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse to the acclaimed revival of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre. A few years ago, NYU renovated The Provincetown Playhouse (left) on MacDougal Street, with Village watchdogs looking over their shoulder. 

15. Watch an independent film at the IFC (6th Ave. and 3rd St.), Cinema Village (E. 12th near University Place), or Angelika Film Center (Houston and Mercer). 

16. Visit the poet houses - Edwin Arlington Robinson, Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e. e. cummings, among others. A tradition of poetry in the neighborhood extends back to the nineteenth century, with Edgar Allan Poe thinking dark thoughts on Amity St. (now W. 3rd.), but the poets really started the migration to these charming streets around 1910, the time when the bohemian self-awareness and identity associated with the neighborhood begins to blossom. Edna St. Vincent Millay got her middle name because St. Vincent's Hospital at Seventh Avenue and W. 11th St., now shuttered, saved the life of one of her uncle. Read more about the poets at the post Free Verse, Love and Greenwich Village - Where Poetry Burns at Both Ends.

Stonewall Inn
17. Visit the Gay Liberation Monument at 51-53 Christopher Street. Positioned in a park on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, the figures in George Segal's sculpture honor the gay rights movement and commemorate the historic events at the Stonewall Inn across the street. On June 28, 1969 police raided the inn, arresting 13 people, and word of the arrest spread quickly among the community. Subsequent protests led to the first gay and lesbian march and served as a catalyst for political organizing. The sculptural installation was unveiled in 1992.

18. See a performance at Le Poisson Rouge. In the space of the old Village Gate on Bleecker, this multi-media arts and cabaret venue hosts many innovative and experimental performances. Contemporary arts help reinvigorate the Village as well as preventing it from wallowing in its own nostalgia.

19. Attend a lecture or take a class at the New York Studio School of Drawing Painting and Sculpture, 8 W. 8th Street. Artist and heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney purchased this building in 1907, and over the next years several other surrounding stables and buildings, laying the foundation for the Whitney Galleries and subsequently the Whitney Museum of American Art. The New York Studio School opened in 1964 to meet the needs of artists for a traditional art education. The school sponsors an excellent lecture series with contemporary artists and critics. 

20. Walk the length of Hudson Street. For area residents, Hudson Street is their everyday street, a place of schools, nursing homes, gyms, community organizations, houses of worship, parks and many businesses that support the life of the neighborhood. The neighborly aspect is most notable in the prime West Village blocks from Horatio St. south to W. Houston. Many blocks in the Village maintain a sense of the city's distant past, thanks in large part to the work of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), the fighter for urban preservation whose former home is on Hudson Street.

21. Explore curious intersections such as W. 4th and W. 13th. One key to understanding the Village is its geography of winding streets. For example, Bleecker Street and W. 4th takes a decidedly more northern turn west of 6th Avenue, causing a lot of general confusion. 

Village Vanguard, Seventh Avenue
22. Reserve a seat at a jazz performance in the richly sonorous triangular basement room of the Village Vanguard or at the famous Blue Note. Make a whole weekend of it.

23. Explore the Italian South Village. The South Village is one of the country’s oldest Italian-American neighborhoods, with roots going back to the Civil War era.

24. Browse local fare at one of the many specialty food shops. Italian specialty shops such as Raffetto's (Houston Street), Faicco (Bleecker Street), Porto Rico Importing Company (Bleecker), and Ottomanelli's Meat Market (Bleecker) treat residents like members of an extended family. The Li-Lac Candy store has been around since 1923. McNulty's Tea and Coffee was founded in 1895. The stretch of Bleecker between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenue is a magnet for foodies, with Murray's Cheese, Amy's Bread, and Rocco's Pastry just a few of the mandatory stops for gourmet food lovers. See this post for a large list of Bleecker Street shops.

25. Reread Henry James and Edith Wharton. Henry James, especially, is part of our literary tradition of bemoaning the lost city. While he was abroad in the 1890s, several new skyscrapers were erected downtown, along with the new academic building for NYU and the Washington Square Arch in his old neighborhood. When he returned in 1904, looking at the city with European eyes, he didn't think much of the place. He enjoyed the peace and harmony of lower Fifth Avenue in the summer, after the crowds had left town, but the peaceful scene, he writes, "kept meeting, half the time, to its discomfiture, the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square – lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state."  (“New York Revisited,” 1907) Read about James and Washington Square in this post. Poor Henry.


Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

There’s much more, of course.

This is what I know - I’ve frequented the same Italian café in the Village for many years, longer than I wish to share. They’ve recently renovated the place, installing new dark panels of wood, yet the place is the same, with the great cappuccino machine emitting its familiar rich and frothing smells. Classical music plays in the background. The café is as warm, cozy, and comforting to me as I found it many, many years ago. As I finish the details of this list, I am sitting there now, at a small round table with pen in hand, looking out onto the street. 

Map of the general area. The traditional boundaries of Greenwich Village are typically defined by 14th Street on the north and south to Houston and then anything west of Broadway all the way to the Hudson River.


Images of places in Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple were taken with the Hipstamatic app for the iPhone.
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• Read the companion post, The Village Green: Hipstamatic Images of Greenwich Village, a Map, and a Walk for a slideshow and self-guided walk. See the stand-alone page on Greenwich Village for even more ideas.

• Read One Hundred Years Ago in Bohemia: Greenwich Village 1912 for a portrait of the Village at the time of the Titanic disaster.

• Hungry? Read Dining Near Washington Square Park, revised and updated.


Also, check out these other 25 Things in New York City:
25 Great Things To Do in New York City
25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
25 Affordable Hotels and Inns in New York City
25 Things to Do in Chelsea