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New York Story: Washington Square, Greenwich Village

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“Washington Square was a place where people you knew or met congregated every Sunday, and it was like a world of music… bongo drums, conga drums, saxophone players, xylophone players, drummers of all nations and nationalities, poets who would rant and rave from the statues. You know, those things don’t happen any more, but back then, that was what was happening. It was all street. . .”
—Bob Dylan; quoted in Maps and Legends: Positively Fourth Street Revisited

From the day I was born, my father was forever taking pictures of me and the city. The photo you see here was taken in August 1957, a month after my birth — in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, at the fountain in Washington Square Park.

Although my mom was born and bred in Manhattan — she grew up on the Lower East Side, which at the time was home to countless poor and struggling immigrants packed into tenements — my dad was born in Arkansas and came to the city in the ’50s. I can only imagine what a culture shock it must have been for him.

Greenwich Village is on the West Side of downtown Manhattan. Its layout is unique to the city, with narrow winding streets that diverge from the rest of Manhattan’s orderly grid. For well over a century (or two), Greenwich Village was a haven for avant garde artists, writers, musicians, and bohemians of all stripes. It thrived for generations as an apex for progressive, alternative culture and political rebellion. Early feminists, socialists, intellectuals, beat poets, folk and jazz musicians, hippies, and gay rights activists all found a home in Greenwich Village. It is here that the Beats of the ’50s and ’60s hung out in the coffeehouses and held poetry readings, and where Lenny Bruce got arrested for obscenity at the Cafe Au Go Go.

The Village atmosphere suffused the writings of such notables as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Keroac in the 50s, as well as generations of writers before them. At the Cedar Tavern, on 8th Street, some of the great abstract expressionists of the ’50s such as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko hung out. In the ’60s and ’70s, countless performers, including Barbra Striesand, Joan Baez, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Maya Angelou, and Bette Midler got their start in the Village’s nightclubs and coffeehouses.

At the time my dad took this picture, folk singers played in Washington Square Park to hordes of like-minded hipsters and beatniks. When Bob Dylan arrived in the city four years later, this is the the kind of scene he likely encountered at the park’s fountain.

In the summer of ’69, twelve years after this photo was taken, my boyfriend BG hitchhiked with a friend from Louisiana and arrived in the Village for the first time, with nothing but two rolls of dimes and his guitar. He was 18 — a year younger than Dylan was when he arrived in 1961 — and the flower power/hippie summer of love was in full bloom. He hung out in the exact same spot where my dad had taken this picture of Washington Square Park. BG, too, was from another world — born in Oklahoma, though he’d also lived in Omaha and Louisiana — and the Village was like nothing he’d ever encountered before. Unlike my dad, who just took pictures of the Washington Square Park oddities, in the Village of the ’60s BG dropped acid, consumed countless other drugs, and made love to hippie chicks.

Although the Village is no longer affordable to most struggling artists and bohemians, there are still plenty of jazz and comedy clubs, off Broadway theaters, bars, cafes, restaurants, coffeehouses, (tattoo parlors), and other gems to visit. The Village Halloween Parade, the largest Halloween event in the country, draws two million spectators.

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About Elvira Black

  • Oh, Elvira: That The Village must be described and described as history! I grew up dreaming of getting there and finally got out of the South briefly in the mid-60s and for good in the late 60’s.

    It was fun. Now it is history. SOHO was fun and exciting until the maids began to dust house plants in loft windows on Prince Street. Now it, too, is history, I suppose.

    Since we have lived in Mexico the past 9 or 10 years, I wait to hear what SOHO is up to and where the “present” place is or the “next” place.

    Thanks for a reminder of times past.

  • Howarddratch:

    Thanks! Hmmm…how would I describe the Village and SoHo now…

    Well, the Village is still architecturally much the same, and its charms still endure. However, when I’m in the vicinity I feel incredibly old because the Village and environs are now overrun with NYU students, since the University has snatched up an enormous number of buildings/sites and turned them into dorms. Washington Square Park is in the process of being renovated and I believe will actually be fenced off for quite awhile while they work on restoring it and moving (!) the fountain to align with the arch (or so I hear).

    SoHo was of course once the center of the art world, but now it is much more touristy, with lots of stores and boutiques. The larger galleries have moved a bit further uptown to Chelsea. There are still galleries in SoHo, but it’s just not the same as it used to be.

    I’d say that the historic landmarks of the Village will endure, and the park will continue to be hospitable to musicians and performers at whatever point they stop fiddling with the park and reopen it (if it is closed now; I haven’t been down in awhile). So it’s not as disenchanting as going to one’s old neighborhood and finding that one’s old house has been torn down. And I think some of that boho spirit will always endure.

  • Troy Deane

    For history of the actual Village seek any specific records relating to the opening day of the original post-Reggio Village coffee houses, beginning with Edgar’s Hobby, and the early phase of The Peacock, the Gaslight, Rienzi’s, Figaro, Cafe Borgia, The Caricature, and any other in that area begun prior to 1959. Pre the late-coming Bizarre, Bitter End, and such.