New York: Greenwich Village Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historic District, the legendary site of American Bohemia, has been home to numerous important writers, artists, and political activists. It is currently a shopping, nightlife, and residential district noted for its low-rise architecture and its maze of quiet, tree-lined streets.

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There is no history of Greenwich Village. Rather, there are histories–each of the village’s seven districts has its own unique stories to tell. If Greenwich Village, as its apologists have indicated over the years, is a “spiritual zone,” then its axis mundi must be the one idea that people from many backgrounds and walks of life can come to one area and create, as John Reed put it, “something glorious,” despite (or because of) the odds against them. Whether the focus has been radical politics, art, or lifestyle, individuals and groups have, with little money or with little public support, started something that would grow to infiltrate the entire American consciousness.

Taking a walk through Greenwich Village today, one sometimes finds it difficult to visit the past. The Loeb Student Center of New York University on La Guardia Place has taken over the site of the House of Genius, named for the number of famous writers who lived there, including Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and O. Henry. The house owned by Henry James’s grandmother, which provided the setting for his 1880 novel Washington Square, is long gone. Only the fronts of the Federal-style housing erected for Manhattan’s elite on the square, known as the Row (between Fifth Avenue and University Place), survived development.

Early History

The land that is now Greenwich Village was inhabited by Sapokanickan Indians before Dutch explorer Henry Hudson came upon it. The land was rich with game and fertile for cultivation. In 1629, the Dutch West India Company granted two hundred acres to Wouter Van Twiller, who immediately turned it into a tobacco plantation he named Bossen Bouwerie or “Farm in the Woods,” in the area around present-day Washington Square. Van Twiller was an opportunist and his landgrabbing so alarmed the Dutch government that he was recalled in 1638.

The fortunes of the Dutch West India Company began to decline as a result of numerous wars with the indigenous people. In 1644, the company’s weakness enabled African slaves who had been shipped to Manhattan to work the farms to ask for their freedom. The Dutch West India company needed the loyalty of blacks during the Indian wars and, according to historian Thelma Wills Foote in her essay for Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture (1993), granted “half-freedom,” “manumitting them on the condition they labor for the company and that their offspring would be the company’s property.” In 1664 hardship caused the company to sell several of its slaves, and the half-freed subjects used this opportunity to petition for full emancipation, which the company granted. When the English took control of Manhattan, however, they enacted a series of oppressive racist laws that sought to debase and reverse the status of the black freedmen, many of whom owned property. (In fact, Richmond Hill, an area of the South Village now demolished, was owned by Simon Congo, a black freedman.)

Greenwich Village might have remained a sleepy farming community but for the epidemics that hit New York City, first a smallpox plague in 1739 and then in 1798 a cholera epidemic for which the city of New York established a burial site at what became Washington Square. These and other plagues drove the city’s elite to escape to the hillier country of the village and purchase residences there. In 1822, a yellow fever epidemic caused a large exodus of people from the city to Greenwich Village, and many settled there permanently. The burial ground was converted to a parade ground and renamed Washington Square. The Washington Square Arch at the foot of Fifth Avenue was designed by Stanford White and erected in 1889 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration. Statues of Washington, Washington at War and Washington at Peace, were added in 1913.

History of Violent Activism

Collectivist, sometimes violent activism became a recurring facet of Greenwich Village life. One of the first labor disputes in the area culminated in the Stonecutters’ Riot of 1834. According to Daniel J. Walkowitz in his essay in Greenwich Village Culture and Counterculture, “Unlike many subsequent crowd activities, it was not a racial or ethnic conflict but a struggle over the use of free versus convict labor.”

The University of the City of New York had purchased a parcel of land east of Washington Square for around $40,000, leaving a balance in their treasury of only $66.75. In order to save money, the university contracted with Elisha Bloomer to provide cut marble for the construction of buildings. Bloomer had first introduced the practice of using prison labor to provide goods and services. Free stonecutters attacked Bloomer’s marble shop at 160 Broadway, smashing windows and doors and demolishing marble mantelpieces. The New York State National Guard was called in to disperse the crowd and remained for several days to protect the construction site.

In the 1850’s, the area west of Washington Square came to be inhabited by poor immigrants who often lived in cheap, unsanitary housing conditions such as those endemic to tenement buildings erected on Bleecker Street. The South Village had long been populated by blacks and was known as “Little Africa.” There the first black Roman Catholic church had been built, and the first black theater and newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, had been established. By 1850, the area was inhabited by French immigrants, and the black population had moved north. According to historian Terry Millar, “by the close of the 1870’s, however, most of the French families had left the area for Midtown, forced away by the growing popularity of Frenchtown as a red-light district.” Frenchtown became the notorious Latin Quarter, while the rest of the South Village became settled by Italian immigrants at the turn of the century.

Different accounts place the beginning of the Greenwich Village legend in different areas. One account places it in the Latin Quarter, while another puts it in the American Ward, possibly so named because it had not been settled by immigrants. American Bohemia probably originated in a dingy smoke-filled beer hall on Broadway, opened by Charles Pfaff in 1855. The patrons of Pfaff’s started the first counterculture publication, the New York Saturday Press, among whose literary contributors was Walt Whitman.

Greenwich Village in the Twentieth Century

By 1910, the village had become a congested district populated by Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and sailors as well as some “old New Yorkers.” “Bohemians” began to flock to the village, attracted by the low rents and the quaintness of the maze of crooked streets, which had survived the city’s attempt to make them conform to the grid design of 1811.

The year 1913 seems to have been pivotal in the life of the villagers, who were distinguished from the other residents of what was then called the Ninth Ward. The Liberal Club, an offshoot of another more conservative club in Manhattan, was established above Polly Holladay’s restaurant, a bohemian hangout. It offered dances to which “uncorseted” ladies were admitted, lectures on birth control by Margaret Sanger, play readings, and exhibits of cubist art.

Two major events arose from the establishment of Mabel Dodge’s salon 1913. The first was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or, as it is more commonly known, the Armory Show. Although, as Rick Beard has written, the exhibition was held “considerably north of Greenwich Village, . . . it brought the Village art community to the forefront as champions of the ‘new art,’” with works by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, Jean (or Hans) Arp, and Marcel Duchamp.

Leftist Movements

The second event was the “Paterson Pageant.” Masterminded by radical journalist John Reed on a suggestion from Dodge, the pageant took place at Madison Square Garden before a crowd of seventeen thousand. The pageant dramatized the struggle of the Paterson, New Jersey, silk workers, and its cast was drawn from the ranks of the workers themselves. A critical success and financial failure, the event inspired Reed, a contributor to the left-wing journal The Masses, to greater levels of activism. He is renowned for heading the American Communist Party and for being deported to the Soviet Union by the U.S. government at the end of World War I. His account of the Soviet rebellion, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), influenced thousands of people to join leftist causes.

The Masses first appeared in 1911 as a vehicle for the growing cooperative movement. After its patron withdrew funding, the journal’s original editor, Piet Vlag, ceased publication. Its contributors decided to keep it going on their own, however, enlisting Max Eastman as the new editor for no pay. It became the principal organ for village intelligentsia, including Reed, Upton Sinclair, and Randolph Bourne. Later, because The Masses protested against World War II, several government agencies worked together to break the publication, even arresting many of its so-called conspirators.

Dodge’s salon and the Liberal Club also had a hand in inspiring the formation of a small theater troupe. An affair between Dodge and Reed was the basis for a short play by Neith Boyce presented in 1915 at a Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer cottage. Buoyed by the success of their second season on Cape Cod, the Provincetown Players decided to try a winter season in the village, moving first to the parlor of a brownstone next to Polly Holladay’s restaurant, and then to a better space three doors south on MacDougal Street. The Provincetown Players introduced the works of Eugene O’Neill, then known as a youthful village drunkard who frequented the worst bar in the village, called the Hellhole, but now known as one of the greatest of all American playwrights. Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was a member of the troupe, which also gained fame producing E. E. Cummings’s expressionist drama, Him (pb. 1927).

One of the more colorful characters in the village at this time was Guido Bruno, whose real name was Curt Josef Kisch. The publisher of Bruno’s Weekly, Bruno’s Bohemia, and Bruno’s Review of Life, Love, and Literature, Guido Bruno is remembered as a fraud eager to exploit the tourists who came to gawk at the eccentrics of Greenwich Village. According to Terry Miller, however, “hindsight shows Bruno’s roster of writers to be less trivial than legend would have us believe.” He was the first to publish Hart Crane and introduced Aubrey Beardsley to an American audience. His Thimble Theatre produced the first performances of August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie (pb. 1888; Miss Julie, 1912).

During the 1920’s, another group of individuals came together to produce “something glorious.” They were scientists and engineers, rather than bohemians, and their work flourished not in the nightlife of tearooms and “goofy” bars, but in the daylight activities of Bell Laboratories. In rather short order, they invented and advanced toll broadcasting, launching what was to become the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). They developed the methods by which sound could be synchronized with film and created the world’s first soundstage. Then in 1927, reporters were called to the eleventh floor auditorium, where, on a large, odd apparatus, they saw and heard Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover addressing them from Washington, D.C. Bell technicians had invented television.

Prohibition and the Literati

Prohibition brought thousands of outsiders into Greenwich Village looking for booze and easy sex, which they found in abundance. Yet some very exciting projects were also happening. In 1919, the New School was formed in protest over New York University’s ban on wartime dissent. Elizabeth Irwin, who founded the Little Red Schoolhouse, began her experiments with elementary education.

The literati of the twenties contributed to the magazine Dial, which published such authors as John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, and H. L. Mencken, as well as the artwork of Picasso and Henri Matisse.

In 1929, the stock market crash affected Greenwich Village as much as it did the rest of America. Still, real estate developers caused rents to soar, and the Whitney Museum of Art was opened. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the wealthy granddaughter of the shipping magnate, abandoned respectable society in favor of the bohemian life, taking a studio on MacDougal Street where she collected the works of modern artists. Her collection played a significant role in the Armory Show of 1913. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused the generous donation of her entire collection, she decided to open her own museum. From 1931 to 1954, when the museum was moved, village residents and visitors were able to view the works of such artists as Arthur B. Davies, John Sloan, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

With six thousand dollars of borrowed funds, Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society in 1938 with the intent of creating the first racially mixed jazz club in New York. For its opening, Josephson found a then-unknown singer by the name of Billie Holiday. Among the jazz greats who subsequently performed there were Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, and Big Joe Turner.

The Beat Generation

In 1943, Allen Ginsberg met his friend Lucien Carr for his first drink in the village. There Ginsberg was introduced to Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. These three writers, more than any others, informed the aesthetic moment of the Beat Generation. Their respective works, Howl (1956), On the Road (1957), and Naked Lunch (1959), defined the mood of youth in America for generations: cynical, bored, and full of romantic idealism. They met at the San Remo, which became so famous as a Beat club that it was featured on television on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The three writers eventually parted company, while the beatniks quickly became a parody of themselves, paving the way for the appearance of the hippies.

In 1950, eighteen abstract expressionist painters, most of whom congregated at their own village facility known simply as The Club, decided to protest a juried exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They signed a letter denouncing the conservatism of the show’s jury and also critics’ rejection of new art in general. It was forwarded to The New York Times and became front page news, leading the “Irascible Eighteen” to pose for a now-famous group portrait in Life magazine. Among the artists represented were Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.

The Village During the 1960’s

As historians Fred W. McDarrah and Patrick S. McDarrah point out, “in the 1960’s, the village became a center of social protest and change.” It was in the village that the Youth International Movement, or “yippies,” was begun by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Experimental theater flowered, such as that devised by Julian Beck’s Living Theater and the underground offerings of Caffe Cino, which presented works by Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, and John Guare. Ellen Stuart opened her basement theater with money from an unemployment check; it is now renowned as the La Mama Experimental Theater Club. Andy Warhol created the Plastic Exploding Inevitable at the Electric Circus disco on St. Marks Place and launched the musical careers of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

The village came together in the sixties for another purpose altogether. Residents helped pass the city’s Landmark Preservation Law, having already organized to limit further construction in their neighborhood. As a result of continuing efforts, 2,035 structures were placed under the protection of a single landmark district comprising almost the entire West Village. One of the beneficiaries of this movement was the Jefferson Market Courthouse, built on the site of the Jefferson Market. Situated on the triangle formed by West 10th, Sixth Avenue, and Greenwich Avenue, the building has been called an excellent example of Gothic Revival and, because of its alternating bands of red brick and white granite, of the Lean Bacon Style.

The Stonewall Rebellion

After an attempt by police in 1969 to raid the Stonewall Union, a gay bar in the village, the patrons responded by throwing rocks and bottles, surprising themselves and the police. For four nights afterward, gays rioted in the Christopher Street neighborhood to protest a history of unfair treatment. The event, now simply referred to as Stonewall, marked the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. Today, Christopher Street and the West Village form one of America’s preeminent centers of gay life.

At the end of the 1970’s, with gentrification pushing its way into the rest of the village, the spirit of village enterprise moved east. Although many residents of the area dispute they live in the East Village, preferring to think of themselves as Lower East Siders, nevertheless the anarchism and experimentalism that have informed the village legend resurged in the burgeoning punk scene of such places as Manic Panic, a punk fashion and paraphernalia boutique, and CBGB’s, the club that introduced Talking Heads, the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Blondie to America. Like their forerunners, these businesses were begun with little money, small support, and enormous drive and creativity.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the village became a high-rent district, turning away those poor artists, writers, and thinkers who often make, out of nothing, something glorious. The spirit of Greenwich Village has been evicted from the location of Wouter Van Twiller’s Bossen Bouwerie, but not from its real location; as Hippolyte Havel, village personality, anarchist, and writer once said, “Greenwich Village has no boundaries. It’s a state of mind.”

For Further Information
  • Beard, Rick, and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, eds. Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press for the Museum of the City of New York, 1993. A collection of essays covering many different perspectives of the area’s history, people, and events. Some of the essays overlap, while others contradict.
  • McDarrah, Fred W., and Patrick J. McDarrah. The Greenwich Village Guide. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1992. A comprehensive history-filled tourist guide.
  • Miller, Terry. Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way. New York: Crown, 1990. A tour of the seven districts of Greenwich. While its schematic organization makes it a difficult narrative, it contains a wealth of information normally left out of both histories and guide books.
  • Selzer, Jack. Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: Conversing with the Moderns, 1915-1931. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. Offers a glimpse of intellectual life in Greenwich Village in the twentieth century.
Categories: History