As someone who blogs about memories of a bygone New York, the recently published Greenwich Village Stories, edited by Judith Stonehill, speaks to my heart and my mind. Whereas I gather people’s recollections about pre-1990 SoHo, Stonehill collects stories of Greenwich Village pre-now, to create a mosaic portrait of this ever-changing neighborhood. Published by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in collaboration with Rizzoli, this “love letter to Greenwich Village, written by artists, poets, playwrights, musicians, restaurateurs, and other neighborhood habitués who each share a favorite memory of this beloved place. The sixty-six stories in this collection of Village memories are original and vivid—perfectly capturing the essence of the Village.”
Even people who have never been to NYC or who were born too recently to have “been there” have their own “memories” of Greenwich Village, through the countless films, television shows, songs, novels, poems, and images they have seen that focus on this famous (and infamous) neighborhood. People who have lived or worked there have more concrete memories. For some, the Village means their very first apartment, a walk up facing Sheridan Square for $40 a month, for others it is the cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery, enjoyed only vicariously through the taste buds of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.
That all of these are “memories,” no matter where or how they originated, speaks to the mythical nature of this neighborhood as well as its ability to transform itself depending on the eye of the beholder. This is what makes these stories, these individual memories, so remarkable, especially when considered together as a group. At heart, they all describe the same essence of a place, one where creativity is nurtured and opportunity abounds, also a place where hard lessons are learned and children become adults, but the experiences surrounding this core vary spectacularly. Even so, Greenwich Village is recognizable to us in every tale.
Judith Stonehill has done a fantastic job curating this collection of gems. These stories and their accompanying illustrations are a record of a neighborhood and community, ever evolving. She has captured a very unique place that we all cherish, but, due to its singularity, that we know will never exist again as it was.
GREENWICH VILLAGE STORIES
Edited by Judith Stonehill
In Association with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Universe Publishing, an imprint of Rizzoli
New York Hardcover / 192 pages / 77 color and black-and-white illustrations
6 1⁄2 x 8 1⁄2
PRICE: $29.95 US & CAN
The following excerpts provide only a glimpse of the riches that are to be found in Greenwich Village Stories.
In an age of cities,
there is just one village
that is known by people the world over:
It got there by being small.
Let’s keep it that way.
I found my first apartment a while later on the corner of West 10th Street and West 4th Street where those streets collide in a burst of Village logic. I lived in a four-story walk-up with a twenty-foot ceiling and skylight, wood-burning fireplace, eat-in kitchen, bathroom with a tub and shower, looking out into a bunch of back- yard gardens. The rent? $32 a month. The previous tenants were two sisters who had lived there for forty years at $22 a month.
I found out Lanford Wilson lived cater-corner to me on the 4th Street side and knew him by this time. I’d open my window and sit there violently tapping the keys of my typewriter to torment him or he’d do the same to torment me.
In 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved out of their apartment at 1051⁄4 Bank Street up to the Dakota and I got the apartment, which had been a sculptor’s studio built in the garden. It had a thirty-foot ceiling with skylights and a spiral staircase up to the roof. That rent was a massive $500 a month. Pilgrims who didn’t know their idol and his wife had moved uptown flocked to my door and left me love letters.
There were maybe twenty people there, and we heard a presentation by the Regional Plan Association, which had been commissioned by CSX, the railroad that owned the High Line. They discussed different options, from demolition to using it for freight to making a park up on top of it.
After that, people got up and spoke about why it was a bad idea to repurpose the High Line. It was a blight on the neighborhood. It was going to fall down any day. It was holding up the economic development of the area. It was dangerous. It was dark underneath. A whole litany of arguments, and really vehement. I was surprised at how strongly these people felt. I had been thinking about speaking at the meeting, but not after all that.
I stayed behind afterward, trying to find anyone else interested in saving the High Line. There was no one except the guy who had been sitting next to me. He told me his name was Joshua David.
I said, “Well, you know, I’m very busy, but if you start something, I could help.” And he said, “Well, I’m also very busy. Maybe you should start something.” We exchanged business cards and agreed to talk later.
I moved to Greenwich Village in 1956. My first apartment was at 81 Bedford Street and subsequently, 72 Barrow Street and later, 14 Washington Place, from which I moved to Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. There were lots of things to like about the Village. One was my involvement with Citizens for [Adlai] Stevenson, the predecessor political club to the Village Independent Democrats (V.I.D.). He was running for president of the United States at the time against Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson’s speeches have never been equaled in style or substance. They were thrilling. I campaigned for him nightly in Sheridan Square, standing literally and occasionally on a soapbox.
While that was a very involving activity for me, there was one other even more fulfilling: eating dinner. At that time, there were three restaurants that I regularly went to because the food was truly delicious and very cheap. The oldest of the three was Louie’s, a bar in Sheridan Square in a building that is no longer standing. Louie’s veal parmigiana was $1.75, and beer was a dime a glass. Another restaurant was the Limelight on Seventh Avenue, which had prix-fixe dinners for $1.80, which I think ultimately increased to $2.50. With a delicious three-course dinner, plus coffee, you also got the opportunity to peruse photographs in a gallery provided by the owner of the restaurant.
Then there was the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in Sheridan Square, near the offices of the Village Voice, where the food was superb and even more varied than the others and just as cheap, but not prix fixe. The reporters and authors of books, plus the politicians, made it their dinner table away from home. It is no longer there.
Later, when I was mayor, about 1978, a fourth restaurant, the Buffalo Roadhouse, opened on Seventh Avenue. I really loved it, especially during the summer, because it had outdoor space. Its hamburgers and soups have never been equaled, at least for me. I believe the owner wanted to upscale and changed to French cuisine. It ultimately closed, and I didn’t miss it.
I think about the cycles a city goes through historically. People come and go; neighborhoods are built up, broken down, and reborn to find their place in time again. The streets walked by Emma Goldman, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Diane Arbus, Allen Ginsberg, and Joey Ramone are the same streets my grandfather traveled from his tenement apartment to his high school to hear Albert Einstein speak. Even through all these changes, you can still find the art, the beauty, and even some trouble on these East Village streets. The sun still rises over Tompkins Square Park shedding light on a spray-painted wall that reads “The Future is Unwritten.”
In 1981 I lived in the Village with my brother Branford. We had an apartment on Bleecker Street near Broadway. We must have been eighteen and nineteen years old then. Art Blakey lived there, too, and he got us into the building. I remember we used to leave the apartment at twelve o’clock at night and go to all of the clubs in the Village. We would go to the Tin Palace, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, and Sweet Basil. I played a lot at a place called Seventh Avenue South, too. And then, we would go to get us some break- fast at Sandolino’s around 5 a.m. and come home about 6:30 in the morning. We called that “doing the circuit,” doing all the clubs like that in one night. I remember all the musicians and gigs down here in the Village. It was very colorful—it reminded me a lot of the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was much more integrated than the rest of New York City, with a lot of different people, no judgment, and a lot of freedom.
My mother used to say, “If you want to be young forever, move to the Village.” I arrived more than twenty years ago and have lived here ever since. I will probably move out feet first.
I was part of the cocky Hermès-tie invasion of the West Village. At the peak of the dot-com craze, I moved to New York and leased a loft on Leroy Street at the Printing House, which was practically a frat house for Wall Streeters. The annual rent could buy a small condo in Texas, but it was spacious. My first night I gave my bike a spin around the living room— I had arrived.
Right away I recognized that the West Village was in the throes of collision. It harbored a mishmash of different species and formed a battleground of sorts for MBAs like me with money (at least on paper) and subletting artists. We had Pastis and Da Silvano, they had El Faro and Tavern on Jane. We all mixed at Florent and rubbed shoulders, literally, at snug La Bonbonniere during hangover Sundays. Dog walkers and tattooed musicians would “Hey, man” me at Meatpacking District parties, and I felt somehow abashed—it was as though they picked up on every- thing about our white-collar raid and still they pardoned us. I wanted to see them fighting for rent-justice, I expected contempt and dirty looks, but those madcaps didn’t seem to give a damn. I envied them. As soon as the 9/11 mourning subsided, the Spotted Pig and six, seven (I’ve stopped counting) Marc Jacobs stores sealed my hood’s fate: being poor and marginal in the West Village was now almost suspicious.
My favorite moments in the Village are always with the beautiful sun drifting over the Hudson River. And as I look out, I am taking photos in my mind or with one of my cameras. It’s always great for me to start the day with a beautiful photo and then three hours of tai chi, all these golden moments in the Village.
The friendliness one encounters in the West Village is unlike that of any other area in the city. People still make eye contact and are actually interested to hear how you are doing. There is an Old World warmth you feel from your neighbors and a sense that they look out for each other. I am thrilled my girls are experiencing life in a real neighborhood in the middle of such a metropolitan city. I want them to grow up walking to school and knowing and supporting local shop owners and restaurant proprietors. We know our mailman! Whenever I describe our neighborhood to people, they think I live in Vermont or Connecticut. Nope, it’s the Village, I say. And I love it.
In the early 1970s, when my guitar store was very small and located on a then-sleepy block of lower Bedford Street, we had well-known musician customers as well as the occasional clueless walk-in. On a particular day, a somewhat ragged-looking hippie-type kid walked in, took down a guitar from the display wall and started playing, quite badly. After ten minutes of torture, Susie, my wife at the time, and I were just on the verge of shutting this kid down and showing him the door when in walked Bob Dylan, a sometime regular there. Without saying a word, Bob picked up a guitar and started playing with the kid. They were, in a word, collectively awful, and if it hadn’t been Bob, we would’ve tossed them both, on general principles. They never said a word to each other, just played together, and after about fifteen minutes the kid put down the guitar and left.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Judith Stonehill is the author of New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places, Greenwich Village, and Brooklyn. She was the co-owner of the New York Bound Bookshop. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) was founded in 1980 to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. GVSHP is a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community.