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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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!
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.