Greenwich Village is one of the most beautiful and historic neighbourhoods in New York. The village has long been a world unto itself, rich, poor, and bohemians have all shared Greenwich Village’s picturesque, winding streets, infusing the neighbourhood with dynamic energy and creating the place that it is today.
In the 1660’s British settlers joined Dutch farmers in a pastoral hamlet 1.5 miles north of the city. They called it “Grin’wich” for Green Village. The population of the village soared dramatically in the early 19th century when outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera sent city dwellers fleeing to the country.
By the 1870’s the enclave for wealthy New Yorkers started filling with poor Irish and Italian immigrants who were seeking work in the quarters warehouses, factories and sweatshops.
The start of the 20th century brought a bohemian crowd of artists and activists who advocated ideas like women’s suffrage, anarchy and free love.
During Prohibition, the “anything goes” neighbourhood was filled with speakeasies, taverns and jazz clubs. The liberal climate and cheap rents made the village a refuge for artists, Beatniks, Hippies and the gay community.
Today Greenwich Village is one of New York’s more expensive places to live but even now its eclectic energy remains.
Washington Square Park is at the heart of the village and serves as a gathering place for neighbours, students, artists, dog walkers, chess players and street performers.
Originally a hanging ground and Potter’s Field the square became an elegant park in 1827. The grandiose Washington Arch was erected in 1892 and replaced an earlier plaster and wood arch that commemorated the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration which happened in New York City. Inspired by Paris’ Arc de Triomphe the Washington Arch was designed by Stanford White. It stands at 77 feet high and is made of marble, the north face of the arch features statues of “Washington at War” and “Washington at Peace”.
On Washington Square South is the Judson Memorial Church and on the other side at Washington Square North is The Row, a series of 1830’s Greek Revival Townhouses. Some famous residents of The Row include Alexander Hamilton, Edith Wharton, Edward Hopper and John Don Passos – he wrote Manhattan Transfer at Number 3. Henry James’ novel Washington Square is set on The Row.
Fifth Avenue begins north of Washington Arch and half a block up on the right is a private alley called the Washington Mews. The small homes on the north side were once stables for The Row, while those opposite were built much later in the 1930’s in the former backyard plots.
Where Fifth Avenue crosses 8th Street was once the “Main Street of Bohemia” and was filled with cafes, galleries, clubs, and head shops. The original Whitney Museum was founded here, and for two decades fans flocked to the 8th Street Playhouse to take part in the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
The Electric Lady Studios at Number 52 was the recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix, it still survives today. The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and The Clash have all recorded here.
This part of Fifth Avenue was once lined with elegant mansions, lavish hotels and churches. Most of the buildings are long gone and were replaced by apartment blocks in the early 20th century however the Church of the Ascension and the First Presbyterian still survive.
At number 7 East 10th Street is the Lockwood De Forest House. The building has a beautifully carved teak bay window, the frame and trim of which were shipped by De Forest intact from India.
Across at West 10th Street the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is one of the village’s most beautiful, it’s lined with elegant townhouses in a variety of styles including English Terrace Row homes with cast iron communal balconies on the streets south side. Mark Twain lived briefly at 14 West 10th Street in the 1850’s.
On the cross junction between Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street stands the landmark Jefferson Market Library, a flamboyant Victorian Gothic building with a 172 foot clock tower. Originally built in 1875 as a courthouse by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux (one of the creators of Central Park). The first and second floor reading rooms were once courtrooms where famous cases were tried – including Harry K. Thaw’s murder of Stanford White, and of strikers from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (two years before the fire that took many of their lives).
Behind the courthouse was an infamous women’s prison where Mae West was jailed on charges of obscenity. From here, inmates often yelled profanities down at passersby. The prison was eventually demolished and is now a pretty community garden.
Behind the library on West 10th Street between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues is Patchin Place, a private cul-de-sac with 10 brick row houses built in 1848. Many writers and artists have lived there including Theodore Dreiser, E.E. Cummings and Marlon Brando.
One block down Greenwich Avenue is Christopher Street, head west into the maze of tangled streets that make up the West Village. When Manhattan adopted a street grid villagers here fought hard to keep their familiar labyrinth of streets – many following original property lines – explaining why this area was untouched.
Half way along on the left is Gay Street, this small curving street used to be a stable alley and once home to African American servants. It later became a haunt for jazz musicians.
At the corner of Christopher Street and Waverly Place is a triangular building called the Northern Dispensary. Built in 1831 it provided health care to indigent villagers, among them Edgar Allen Poe.
A little further along is Christopher Park, the historic centre of New York’s gay community. This was the location of the Stonewall Riots, the watershed event that sparked the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn at number 53 is not the original bar although it’s the same location.
Inside the park is George Segal’s life sized bronze sculpture – painted white – of two same sex couples. It is titled “Gay Liberation”.
Across Seventh Avenue and a few blocks west is a building that all fans of American sitcoms will recognise, it’s on the corner of Grove and Bedford and is the fictional site of the “Friends” apartment.
Between 10 and 12 Grove Street is Grove Court, a quaint private enclave built as homes for workmen in 1853. Next door are four well preserved 1834 Federal Houses – numbers 10 to 4.
On Bedford Street at number 77 is the oldest house in the village (1799), it was once a freestanding farmhouse. Next door is Seventy Five and a half Bedford Street, the narrowest building in the city, measuring less than 10 feet wide. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Cary Grant briefly lived here but not together.
Along Bedford Street crossing Seventh Avenue again and going left on to Leroy Street brings us to Bleecker Street. This area was the heart of the Italian immigrant community and even today there are still some fantastic restaurants and shops here.
Just along Bleecker Street is Our Lady of Pompeii, the spiritual hub for the neighbourhood Italians.
Across Sixth Street is Minetta Street which follows the curve of the brook that still runs beneath the road. “Manetta”, the original Native American name meant Devil Water.
The four blocks of Bleecker Street between Sixth Avenue and West Broadway were the main stomping ground of the Beatniks, the 60’s folk music revival and the Off Broadway movement. The street was lined with jazz clubs, coffee houses and theatres. It’s still a centre of nightlife today.
Between numbers 172 and 176 Bleecker Street the buildings still have the old artists garrets, number 159 used to be Circle in the Square an important off Broadway theatre, it’s now called The Market NYC.
Just across the street is Mills House No.1, it’s above the entrance to number 160. This was a hotel and flophouse for poor and working class men. They charged 20 cents a night to stay here. Ironically, and as an example of how much Greenwich has changed, it now houses luxury co-op’s. The building also held the famed jazz club, The Village Gate.
Other notable music venues here include Kenny’s Castaways which showcased many famous musicians including Bruce Springsteen, The Red Lion and The Bitter End, New York’s oldest rock and roll club.
MacDougal Street is another legendary centre of nightlife, this block is packed with restaurants, food stands, clubs and taverns. Notable venues here include the Minetta Tavern, Cafe Wha? which presented Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Peter, Paul & Mary and Bill Cosby. Cafe Reggio the village’s oldest coffee house and a hangout for the Beats is also along here.
At number 133 MacDougal is the historic Provincetown Playhouse, converted stable where Eugene O’Neill premiered many of his greatest plays.
Heading back to Washington Square Park and right by the West 4th Street subway station is a basketball court, this is the famous “Cage” where players from all over the city come to play “Streetball”.
Greenwich Village is a fascinating place and I hope you’ve enjoyed my small insight into an area of New York that I love and enjoy exploring every time I travel there.