On a bitterly cold January morning in 1917, the painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamps, along with friends, climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch to proclaim the secession of Greenwich Village from the United States. Thenceforth the neighborhood that stood as America’s repository of avant-garde art, literature and social enlightenment would be known as the Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square. The stunt defined the character of the Village, as it is popularly known to New Yorkers, for the ensuing half century.
In the 1930s, a creative effervescence took hold in Manhattan. At the southern reaches of the island, where ancient cobbled streets and leafy squares mirrored the Bohemian character of Greenwich Village, one could hardly set forth in any of the lively watering holes and coffee houses without spotting local artists like Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock, propping up the bar at the White Horse Tavern or Caffè Reggio, the first place in America to serve cappuccino.
Originally an Indian fishing village with a stream running through it known as the Minetta (hence the still-thriving Minetta Tavern), the area was transformed into a tobacco plantation by the Dutch, while under the English it became a country village known as Grinwich. Thanks to its isolation, most of the Village was spared inclusion in the Manhattan grid plan and retained its twisting 18th century street layout.
‘The neighborhood is intriguing because of the unfamiliar street pattern,’ says art deco historian and former Greenwich Village tour guide Anthony W. Robins. ‘For instance, it was fun discovering the intersection of West 4 th and West 12 th streets, thoroughly unintuitive to a New Yorker accustomed to the usual Uptown grid, where numbered streets are always parallel to one another.’
In the 1930s any self-respecting Villager could proudly claim that almost every cultural amenity a person might want was to be found within the confines of an area bounded by Bleecker and 14th Street, Second Avenue and Greenwich Street. No other residential section of New York could hold a candle to the cultural vibrancy of Greenwich Village. Those who lived outside this privileged enclave scarcely existed. Wall Street might just as well have been in Illinois, and Madison Avenue a road in Ohio.
In the 1930s world celebrities like Albert Einstein, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlie Chaplin and Joseph Conrad sat for the sculptor Jo Davidson in his Village studio. In that decade, the Village became a powerful symbol of cultural rebirth, a community that set its sights beyond the desolation of the Depression, keeping alive and cultivating the arts in all their manifestations. Many Village residents, as well as those who came to partake of its nonconformist culture, became leading activists in the social-reform movement. Barney Josephson, the son of a Jewish Latvian immigrant, was a jazz fan and frequent visitor to the Cotton Club in Harlem. Much as he enjoyed the music, Josephson was troubled by the club’s racial segregation policy. Determined to put right this injustice, in 1938 he opened Café Society in the heart of the Village, a dark and cosy basement meeting place. This became America’s first racially integrated nightclub, where top performers like Billie Holiday and jazz pianist Teddy Wilson lost no time in showing Josephson their support and gratitude, both putting in regular appearances at the Sheridan Square venue.
Always in the vanguard of progressive thought, at the time of Hitler’s ascendancy the Village became a beacon of hope for persecuted German academics, guiding them to a safe harbour of promise. By the 1930s The New School for Social Research had set up its ‘University in Exile’ in West 12th with the backing of a diverse group of luminaries, including Supreme Court chief justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union Felix Frankfurter, philosopher John Dewey and newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope. By 1934, they had raised enough funds to bring a dozen highly regarded German Jewish academics to New York. In the ensuing decade, nearly 200 European intellectuals had joined the faculty at the New School’s Village campus.
Even at that time change was beginning to take hold of Village life. The British photographer Sir Cecil Beaton noted in his travels to New York in the 1930s that the Village had become ‘more bourgeois than
Bohemian’. What he saw was a neighborhood in which ‘the artists’ quarter had yielded to slums or commercialism…the aspiring poets, working in gas-lit rooms with splintered floors, unable to pay their six dollars a week rent, have moved elsewhere’.
But Beaton acknowledges that ‘Washington Square, with charming, uniform houses of red brick, retains what Henry James described as “established repose”. Bobbles, like the fringes of Edith Wharton’s antimacassars, still hang from the plane trees with their artificially sun-dappled bark.’
‘There are few places in New York that could be said to be anything less than dramatically changed from the 1930s to the present,’ says Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. ‘In many cases, parts of New York have in fact unrecognisably changed over the last eighty years. Yet in spite of that the Village, while clearly a vastly different place than it was eighty years ago, or even eight years ago, shares a remarkable amount in common with its inter-war self.’
Berman says that today, as in the 1930s, the Village still feels like an intimate, tucked away neighborhood, and yet ironically a place where people come from all over the city, region, and world for a taste of charm, history, excitement, drama, and culture. ‘This has always been and remains a paradox of the Village – it is at once one of New York’s quietest and liveliest of neighborhoods,’ he says. ‘Vast stretches of the Village, from its charming row houses to its evocative tenements and grand pre-war apartment buildings, remain intact. Some houses have gone full circle over the past century, once turned into multi-family dwellings and now converted back to single-family houses.’
In the 1960s, Bob Dylan pitched up in the Village to launch his career. Beatniks, New York University students and hippies huddled in the candle-lit premises of The Bitter End, the Village Gate and Café Wha’ to listen enraptured to the future megastar. Today tourists are offered the Bob Dylan Greenwich Walking Tour. They are guided through a warren of narrow streets, whose four postcodes rank amongst the ten most expensive property sites in the US.
The 1960s witnessed a flowering of Village counterculture, epitomized by literary icons like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Borroughs, the founding fathers of the Beat Generation. They are gone, yet many traditions endure: The New School remains a center of academic excellence, The Village Vanguard continues to bring in dazzling jazz ensembles and Caffè Reggio, the last of a vanished breed, is still serving cappuccino in its baroque salon to the Village literati and tourists, as it has done for nearly a century.
‘Washington Square has been rebuilt as a family-friendly park, though students still seem to be its major population,’ says Robins. ‘New York University has continued to expand — it replaced the house where Edgar Allen Poe lived with a new building for the Law School. Yes, the Village remains a tourist draw, but still a wonderful place to wander around. The presence of NYU guarantees the survival of a few restaurants catering to students, and even the occasional bookshop. But hippies? Radical politics? Resident artists, musicians and writers? Not at these prices — they are few and far between.’
Berman says one thing today’s Village shares most distinctly with that of the 1930s are the doomsday forecasts: the Village is ‘finished’, no longer what it once was or what defined it. ‘Not only was this being said in the 1930s and in every decade that followed, you can find literature asserting the same in the 1890s, when the Village first started to become a tourist destination for those seeking to enjoy how the other half lived,’ he says. ‘However, then as now the Village continues to attract residents and visitors drawn by its almost impossibly charming and anachronistic streets, its strong sense of community, its shockingly low scale, its quiet streets, lively thoroughfares, and unrivaled array of places to eat, shop, be entertained, laugh, and be seen. This is as true today as it was a hundred years ago.’
Editor’s Note: Jules Stewart will be giving a talk at the 92nd Street Y in February about New York in the 1930s. More information is available here.
Photo: 453–461 Sixth Avenue in the Historic District, from the NYCLPC Greenwich Village Designation Report Vol. 1