The Transformation of West Greenwich Village

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Jill Lynne's brownstone on Bank Street, through the Snow.

The 1861 Bank Street Brownstone is the most “home” I have had.

From its stoop for nearly four decades — where we Villagers in traditional old-New-York-neighborhood-style still sit with our beloved dogs, glasses of red wine and mini- picnics, to chat and catch-up — I have personally witnessed the transformation of West Greenwich Village.

WV “Arborcide”: Worker cuts down another tree as part of a gut renovation.

From a somewhat sleepy, artsy community where one wakened to the sounds of actors reciting lines, gentle melodies of folk songs strummed on worn guitars, and passionate sociopolitical activists strategizing their protests, we now wake to shrill drills of multi-million-dollar construction and the vibrating beat of jack hammers. For West Greenwich Village claims the most expensive real estate in New York City, and gut renovations are non-stop.

Demographics have radically changed. In 1974 when I first officially moved to my “hood” with my young daughter CoriAnne and my late betrothed, in addition to the prominent artistic element, and a vestige of the historical Italian community, a large gay population (predominantly male) inhabited the area.

The Gay sector was not yet the “yuppified” posh group of today, but instead an energetic, politicized, flamboyant, fabulous group whose razor sharp humor and creative brilliance represented a futuristic beacon. It was the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots. In fact, during the ’70s, the streets of NYC were riddled with escalating crime and violence against women and minorities. The Village community offered a safer haven for both my daughter and myself.

L. to r.: Daughter CoriAnne with ice cream cone from Local Shoppe on Bleecker Street, 1976; John Gerard Mason lighting pipe, on Bank Street, 1978. John was attracted to the Village for its Sociopolitical environment.
L. to r.: Mother with Asian-American son, 1990s; Multi-generations of Cuddihys, with late mother Heidi, living on Bank Street, late 1990s.

On one side our neighbor was the adored, controversial politician, Bella Abzug — who I knew from the Women’s Movement — and on the other, the celebrated Poet/Author, Kenneth Koch.

Actually my love affair with the Village began as a child, when my culturally-supportive parents would traverse their way “downtown” to visit the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit (now in its 82nd Year!), and 8th Street vicinity Galleries.

Joseph Delaney, here in 1968, exhibited for 36 years in the Washington Square Art Show.
Founder of the American Indian College Fund, Gail Bruce at her WV Ramscale Westbeth Space, with friends.
Designer Donna Karen lends her support to the recent Africa THORNTREE Benefit, held at the studio of her late husband Stephen Weiss, in The West Village. Pictured here with Irish-Born Eco-Designer, Clodagh (l.), and The Founder of The Organization, Jane Newman (r.).

Since the development and popularization of areas south of the Village such as SoHo, Tribeca, Lolita, Battery Park … today’s Greenwich Village is no longer considered a true “Downtown” destination.

On one such memorable parental “field trip,” we happened upon a fascinating group of women cross-dressed as men in full black-tie regalia. I questioned Mother, who replied, “Lesbians!” and continued to roll out a historical VIP list of the names of important Villagers, the Gay and strong women of the Literati – including George Sand and Edna St. Vincent Millay .

Commemorating the West Village Literati : A Bank Street plaque notes Willa Cather lived here.
A Broadway Benefit for NYC’s WV-based The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Founded in 1983, The Center provides strategic services, a social meeting pace and serves more than 300 groups.
Marriage Equality celebrated in Michael Kors window, June, 2011.

During my “Hippie-Chick, Bohemian days (born too late to be a Beatnik), I independently explored the Village. On my first date as a 16-year-old, we stopped by Chumley’s, the historical speakeasy of anti-Prohibition infamy. It took me years to rediscover this haunt, which like some of GV’s most intriguing nooks, are deliberately hidden amidst entwined streets – curiously numbered so that a 4th Street may crisscross a 12th.

West Fourth Street at West 12th Street.

It is said that its historical inhabitants — “Free” black farmers and eccentric creators — did not want to be discovered. When the street grid came to Manhattan, West Villagers insisted that it stop at Seventh Avenue, thereby maintaining the “secrecy” of their “guarded” territory.

Personal nostalgia includes hearing Bobby Dylan first play in NYC at the memorable Gertie’s Folk City, singing along with Peter, Paul and Mary at the Bitter End, and drinking endless cups of java at the Figaro. My “costume” back then — a black turtleneck, black tights, black boots, black backpack, long blonde hair — is still very much the same.

Snow-covered 1800’s WV townhouses.

Forever the Documentarian, I always carried a signature, black-leather-covered sketchpad for both drawing and writing. Later as a teen, I traded the pad in for beloved cameras. Occasionally the guitar (I never fully learned to play) also accompanied me, especially to Washington Square Park, where we would gather for impromptu folk song sessions.

Today’s West Village is one of the few neighborhoods where old-world occupants, ranging from a few clinging to rent-controlled apartments and rare multi-generational family-owned townhouses, butt directly against nouveau family multi-million dollar urban mansions, housing significant numbers of children – showcased by nannies in sidewalk-hogging strollers (which should bear the sign “Wide Load”).

Jessica Stone-Doyle with son Jacob Peter in front of WV family townhouse. She has returned, with her English husband Miles Doyle, to live in her childhood home with her parents. A trend which offers economics plus baby-sitting!
Jessica’s father, Dr. Stone, decorates his home with carefully potted fleurs.
Wisteria vines hang over West 4th Street.
Nature-loving West Villagers decorate their homes with colorful window boxes.

One posh Bank Streeter had the entire street closed off to replant a five-story-high special tree in his rear garden. Another new resident installed a heating system beneath his the townhouse sidewalk, to melt snow. These newbies have frequently proven to be good neighbors. On the recent Halloween eve, they fully participated in community traditions; Not only imaginatively decorating stoops with elegant jack-o’-lanterns, but assigning welcoming members of their staff to greet all the adorably costumed kiddies, with large bowls of candy-for-the-taking.

Many know the “Village” Halloween Parade truly began in the WV. The annual event was founded by the great costumer/artist Ralph Lee in his Westbeth studio, where he created many of the signature, iconic, larger-than-life figures. His vision was to develop a thoroughly participatory local ritual. Yours truly participated in that first parade, walking the Village streets with my daughter CoriAnne, costumed and carrying candles, as in a medieval pageantry.

It was when Ralph thought the Parade co-opted, becoming an out-of-town, spectator event, that he left.

Halloween celebration with candy for all on a WV Townhouse stoop.
L. to r.: WV’s Halloween celebrants.; Bedraggled on trashed streets, post parade.

A vestige of Café Society still prevailed in the 1970s. Artists, intellectuals and their admirers would sit around tables into the wee hours, sipping java and discussing art and social issues with new rock ‘n’ roll playing in the background.

With radically rising rents, cafes had all but disappeared in the WV. However, in a curious turn of fate, Starbucks inadvertently took the lead in their resurrection.

Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala Ceremony at Village’s East West Books (now closed as a result of skyrocketing rents).
Founder of Left Bank Books Arthur Farrier (forced to move from Bank Street to 8th Avenue).
Neighbors peruse the (former) site of community-oriented Biography Bookshop (economically forced to move to 480 Bleecker Street).
Adding insult to Injury, in moved Marc Jacob’s BOOKMARC (the 6th Marc Jacob venue within four blocks), specializing in large-format coffee-table books.

The neighborhood is once again dotted with cafes (and the new trend, Tea houses – Tea & Sympathy, The Tea Set).

The topic of conversation (so many only chatting via their iPad, iPhone and laptop) may have changed to finance and babies, but occasionally one can still overhear whispers of culture and world changing socio-politics.

An occasional WV sign visualizing humanistic concerns.
The much-loved and appreciated 6th Precinct’s 9/11 Memorial, created by local children.

The quality of life has been greatly enhanced by the expansion of WV green space. There is an abundance of welcoming park land – from the lovely quiet respite of beautifully planted Abingdon Square Park, and its sister playground, carefully administered by a public/private partnership (the wave of the future), the excellent NYC Parks Department and the watchful eyes of a caring community.

A passerby enjoys the tulip fest in Abingdon Square Park.
Executive Creative Director of American Eagle, West Villager Roger Markfield, with dog and friends, enjoy Abingdon Square Park.
Under the aegis of Co-Founder/Director Abingdon Square Alliance, Lee Zimmerman (r.), and neighbor “Honeyman,” enjoy the Park.

There also is Jackson Square where one can lunch or reflect to the soothing sounds of falling water in a large fountain, funded, in part, by a significant grant from Armani.

I am delighted to have contributed to the development of the magnificent Hudson River Park spotlighting some of the best sunset viewing on the isle of Manhattan. Did you know the West side stays brighter just a wee bit longer than the East! Many gather here to toast the sunset in a kind of low-key Key West style!

Runners and readers at Hudson River Park near Christopher Street, on a clear summer afternoon.
Looking back, pre-Park, the same view, Christopher Street Pier, in 1975. Note the Twin Towers in the distance.
Sunset view from Hudson River Park.

Attracting visitors worldwide, GV also hosts the beginning Southern-most point of the visionary High Line – a one-time derelict elevated thoroughfare for long-defunct trains, presently brilliantly developed into a alluring greenway, from Gansevoort Street to 30th. And still growing!

Reading and sunning on the WV/Chelsea’s High Line.
Fleurs midst railroad ties on High Line.

The proliferation of wonderful parks has facilitated WV becoming the “Land of Little Dogs,” and a few big ones. There is even an unofficial “Canine-Cocktail-Hour” where at dusk, many owners walk their “fluffs; engaging in neighborly chit-chat.

Beasty Feast has become a quasi-community center. The going grooming fee for our beloved mini four-leggeds: $120! (Have I ever paid that for my own coiffure?).

L. to r.: Jill Lynne’s best WV Friend, HRH Prince Shadow of Bank Street — Fluffer-Nutter-Woofer-Snapper; In The “Land-of-Little-Dogs,” a WV Writer basks in the sun, parkside, with her best pal.
Two mothers with their “children” participate in the Blessing of Pets at WV’s The Church of St. Luke in the Fields.
HRH’s Groomer Ernesto with new coiffure at the tres chic Canine Style on Greenwich Avenue.

A Culinary Paradise! When we first moved here the standard Village eatery was an Italian restaurant bedecked with red and white checked tablecloths and candle-dripped-Chianti-bottle-centerpieces, serving spaghetti with meatballs in marinara sauce. Of course there was the historical White Horse made infamous by the antics of Dylan Thomas and pals.

Dylan Thomas is immortalized at the White Horse.

So very different now, the transformed WV hosts many fine culinary establishments featuring global cuisine. In fact there is a veritable “Restaurant Row,” extending on West 4th Street – from Seventh Avenue through Hudson Street/Eighth Avenue. It all began with TARTINE – one of Gael Greene’s favorites. Sharing her “secret” in the New York Times brought throngs who would wait hours for this tiny eatery.

The trendy yuppified crowd may be seen awaiting tables outside Café Cluny (in the tradition of Keith McNally’s Odeon).

The scene outside the popular McNally developed Café Cluny.
L. to r.: West Villager and daily diner outside Café Cluny (his proverbial kitchen); Brazilian Artist Gretta Sarfaty (of the Safra family) celebrates her birthday at Café Cluny.

Then there is the peaceful Café Milano, Villa Pari, and the light and airy, popular Mediterranean-ish Tremont, begun by the same Restaurateur responsible for The Inn at Windmill Lane in the Hamptons.

A well-designed open and modern space, Tremont is perfect for people-watching, serving up lunch, dinner and NYC’s most popular meal – Le Brunch. I highly recommend the smoked trout & spinach, with fingerling potatoes, horseradish and a fried egg.

L. to r.: Restaurateur Tim Bando of WV’s Tremont and the Hampton’s Inn at Windmill Lane, serves up lunch, brunch, and dinner; Restaurateur and WV Resident, the very British Nicky Perry of Greenwich Avenue’s Tea & Sympathy and A Salt & Battery, celebrates The Royal Wedding.

A newcomer to the W4 Restaurant Row is Smorgas Chef, heralded as “The New Nordic Cuisine.” Serving the best house-cured Gravlax Salmon with mustard sauce and presenting quality produce, local fish and meat fresh from their own sustainable Catskill Blenheim Hill Eco-Farm, this dining experience is naturally and ethically flavorful.

Smorgas Chef spotlighting fresh produce from their Catskill Eco-Farm.
The very English Myers of Keswick, offering Anglo favorites … Kidney Pies, Sausage Rolls … for 25 years.
Greenwich Ave’s Little Owl prepped for Hurricane Irene.

Celebrating a quarter of a century, The Place was actually built 114 years ago. The antique small rooms, with original oak beams and two fireplaces, features new-takes on hearty renditions of market-fresh comfort food. All in a gem of old-world candlelit ambiance. There is one special corner table – earmarked for romance, where over 200 have proposed. My fav is the Pan Seared Diver Scallops over a creamy polenta. Under the personal aegis of on-site Brit Founder, Alex, The Place admirably donates 10% of all profits to local children’s and global green charities.

Pan Seared Diver Scallops over a polenta and bacon ravioli at The Place.

In the ’70s there stood the historical Ye Ole Waverly Inn – where George Washington was noted to have stayed and dined. On cold snowy eves locals sipped cognac in front of a blazing fireplace. Today, “tastefully” transformed into The Waverly, by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter (also a WV resident), the space juxtaposes vintage architectural elements with amusing contemporary murals characterizing the famous. The destination not only offers a trendy, hangout to a fashionable crowd, but unfortunately the “scene” is frequently surrounded by paparazzi awaiting “stars.” Whatever happened to my tranquil street!

Greenwich Avenue is also a street of varied restaurants. The fine French Lyon is among the newest additions. A “true bouchon,” offering the very best soupe à l’oignon ever tasted – including Paris. The white-tablecloth casual ambiance, attracts a special crowd – where a touted designer such as Isaac Mizrahi may be sited privately dining with the very best of friends.

Snow falls outside The Waverly (One Ye Olde Waverly Inn).

Then there is Monument Lane! A forward-thinking tavern featuring the sharing-fun of bites and small platters of seasonal American fare as well as a communal dining table (go easy on the large single population who perchance might be dining alone). The updated rustic interior is inspired by the pastoral past of the 1700s – when there were apple and cherry orchards, fresh estuaries, marshlands, and the Hudson overflowed with mussels and oysters – and when New Yorkers traveled down a road named “Monument Lane” (now Greenwich Avenue) to reach the retreat of this idyllic countryside, West Greenwich Village.

The food is innovative and delicious. Roasted cauliflower quiche. Farro risotto with charred broccoli, walnuts and Parmesan.

Monument Lane at the corner of West 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue.

At times friends tempt me to the outer perimeter of the WV, and I realize just how small are our true daily “hoods” – with a radius of perhaps just six blocks. A trip to the UES (Upper East Side) becomes a decisive venture.

On one such occasion, I was enticed into Ayza Wine & Chocolate Bar. Located on Seventh Avenue at Carmine Street, it seemed miles away. However the suites of robust wine, and especially the array of mouth-watering chocolates, were worth the trip.

Tucked away throughout WV are intriguing spots in which to feast and imbibe. Explorers, who take the time to meander, frequently discover culinary treasures, and “ye olde curiosity shoppes.”

Bleecker Street Shoppe with proprietor, 1980s. Indicative of the Old Bleecker Street with creative, individually owned businesses.
An unofficial landmark in the West Village at 88 Perry Street, just off the corner of Bleecker.

Greenwich Village of the ’70s had only small shoppes, long-term family owned businesses and one-of-a-kind merchants. Then, despite community protestation, McDonald’s moved in. “It is the beginning of the end!” proclaimed my astute mother.

Unfortunately individually owned and operated venues have become an endangered species, a thing of the past. Small retail has almost no chance! Groceries, bodegas, and custom designer boutiques simply cannot compete against still yet another mega-style Duane Reade, Rite Aid, the proliferation of large banks, or five Marc Jacobs and four Ralph Laurens within a few mere blocks.

Spyros, one of the few remaining bodegas.
Inside a WV Townhouse, Edith and Roy Zuckerman host a cocktail for daughter Eva’s new jewelry collection.
Renowned for his cross-dressing act, 88-year-old Tish holds street-side Bank Street sales.

Has not gone awry? Residents do enjoy the convenience of chic local shopping – if primarily window-shopping. Tourists flock to, what I have entitled, Rodeo Drive East – Bleecker Street, named after the Bleecker family who in 1808 deeded their farmland for the street.

Once tranquil, it is presently a bustling “boulevard,” highlighted by Magnolia Bakery, popularized by Sex and the City – where busloads of fans line up around the block for pastel cupcakes. Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Burberry, MAC Cosmetics, Nars, Jimmy Choo, Burberry and Michael Kors are but a few of the High-end name boutiques lining Bleecker.

A sleepy morning Magnolia Bakery awaits busloads of tourists that regularly encircle the block.
The Arrival of Jimmy Choo is emblematic of the transformation from former individually owned local venues to high-end corporate chic boutiques.
L. to r.: The contrast in The West Village is literally reflected in this Ralph Lauren, Bleecker Street window. (RL has 4 Bleecker Boutiques); The Nars Shoppe Window on Bleecker Street. Ironically, The Founder of Nars Lived on Bank Street.
Tracy Reese boutique, located in the WV, bordering the Meatpacking District.
On a rainy day, Bank Street strollers peer into the windows of Marc Jacob’s women’s boutique (one of five MJ WV Shoppes).
In the spirit of socio-political activism, the two James Perse boutiques give back with their Beagle Rescue Program. Perse is located on Bleecker Street, which I named “The New Rodeo Drive.”

With the edges of the trendy Meatpacking District area butting up against and blurring the former boundaries of the WV, there is also easy access to still-yet-more designer boutiques and “happening” eateries.

Just a few blocks away we can now visit the restored East Chelsea area surrounding Fifth Avenue from 14th through 23rd streets, where my grandparents shopped for a selection of their finer items. If one looks upward on Sixth Avenue, where an elevated train once ran, they can still view ornately crated architectural detailing on the second and third levels of large buildings (now housing the likes of Bed, Bath and Beyond). These elaborate decorative carvings were designed to attract potential customers, riding above on the EL.

The Hugh O’Neill department store in 1890 with its pair of huge and fanciful beehive domes towering over the Sixth Avenue EL.

The NYC of old, where the necessity of traveling from one designated neighborhood to another to procure specific goods and services – from the transformed meat market through the jewelry district, 34th street mid-range shopping to luxe Fifth Avenue – is fading fast. Many neighborhoods have become autonomous. Everything commercial seems to be just about everywhere.

WV is strewn with celebrities, VIPs and recognizable faces, all seeking a lower-key lifestyle; Susan Sarandon, Malcolm Gladwell, the cinematic Weinsteins. Many a B&T-er stops to inquire the whereabouts of Sarah Jessica Parker. However, we guard our Village secrets – No-tell!

WV neighbor Sarah Jessica Parker on the Bank Street set for Sex and the City.
The Cuddihy children and friends await President Obama’s recent arrival for the Weinstein’s honorary dinner.

L. to r.: Filmmaker Kara Raynaud directs her film, The Queen of Greenwich Village; Producer of Irish Theater, WV resident Georganne Heller (daughter of the late Larry Aldrich, the one-time part owner of the Empire State Building and founder of The Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield CT).
L. to r.: Pianist/singer Sara Silverman on WV stoop; Designer Kriz Kizak (wife of James Wines, founder of SITE) with French friend outside Hudson Street’s Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Stylist Rebecca Weinberg (of Sex and the City fashion fame) Celebrates her Partner Deborah in the WV.
Popular background actress and WV resident Cathy Spears, celebrating her 50th birthday.
Left: WV resident, designer Michael Brummel, Co-Founder of Kirk Brummel and Design Director at Kirk Brummel/Brunschwig & Fils, sips Cappuccino at West 4th Street’s Cafe Minerva.

Right: With his astute artist’s eye he commented on how The West Village abounds in triangular and quadrangular-shaped small parks; Nepalese-Born Henry, with his nanny Maria Madalena (Baba), in front of his historical WV home owned by his two moms.

Celebrated authors, such as Henry James, Floyd Dell, and the insightful contemporary Adriana Trigani (Very Valentine: A Novel) enchanted by the unique spell of Greenwich Village aspire to translate its magic to their novel’s pages. They have all captured some of the unique sensibility – past intrigues, convolutions and the dynamic present. However to begin to comprehend, one has to be immersed, dwell with the ghosts, encounter the history, and live here for a longish spell. Gratefully I have.

In the tradition and spirit of GV’s historical literati and great artists, I happily write in the hush of the morn, watching dawn arise over snow-laden gardens; in the distance, the comforting beacon of the Empire State Building. I write as a proud multi-generational New Yorker and a devoted West Villager.

Photographs by Jill Lynne. Visit her here.

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