Tucked a few blocks away from the crowds and flashing lights of Times Square, you can find The Library of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen, a treasure trove of tomes, with gilded faux marble pillars, ornately filigreed iron banisters encasing the second floor, and wooden bookshelves stocked with over 100,000 volumes. For the Society’s spring “Artisan Lectures and Labor, Literature and Landmarks Series,” cultural commentator and author John Strausbaugh showcased his new book, The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a rapid-paced romp of a history lesson chronicling just how and why Greenwich Village became, at one point, “The Most Famous Neighborhood in the World” from its meager beginnings as a Dutch pastoral colony in the early 1600s.
New York City can trace its reputation as a party town characterized by diversity all the way back to its founding. By 1640 the population of southern Manhattan, then an outpost of the Dutch West India Company called New Amsterdam, numbered less than five hundred people (excluding Native Americans, of course), yet boasted inhabitants ranging from European to African (as a result of the DWIC’s slave trade) to a “Muslim mulatto” and to Jews by 1654. Taverns were a quarter of the town’s buildings, and, as Strausbaugh relays in his book, “drinking and whoring were the chief entertainments” after a hard day of farming.
Map depicting settlement of New Amsterdam in roughly the late 1700s. Source: Columbia University
In 1644 New Amsterdam granted some of its slaves “half-freedom” so they could grow food for themselves and for the colony on tiny bits of land. The farms were connected by a well-traveled lane, known in colonial times as the Negroe’s Causeway, that followed the lost Minetta Brook (now Minetta Street.) Though this partial freedom seems revolutionary, it was instead a scheme to use black farms as a defensive buffer between the town and the native Lenape after Willem Kieft, the director-general of the colony from 1638-1647, attempted to levy taxes on them. After the Lenape refused, Keift waged a brutal war slaughtering thousands.
A century and a half later, more than ten thousand free blacks lived in Manhattan with the greatest population living in Greenwich Village’s Minetta area. Known as Little Africa, this area attracted William Henry Brown, a former steamship steward in the West Indies, to a two story house on the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Streets in 1821. On the bottom floor he sold tea and ice cream, and on the top floor he started the African Grove, the first black professional theater in America. As it was common for patrons to interrupt the actors or jump on the stage mid-performance, whites were required to sit in the back rows of the theater. This got so rowdy that the police shut the theater down during a performance in 1822, and Brown was forced to close the Grove’s doors in 1823.
An engraving of Ira Aldridge, who began his acting career doing performances of Shakespeare at the African Grove. Source: Wikipedia
Just a few decades later and a half a mile walk from Minetta to Broadway, Walt Whitman found himself amongst the artists, writers, actors, and bohemians that congregated at Pfaff’s bar. Sex work was booming in the area—according to an 1855 census it was the second most popular industry in the city—and the beer was always flowing. As of 2011, you can once again drink in the same bar as Walt Whitman did in the 1850s. Now, the new Vault at Pfaff’s (the name is taken from a poem of Whitman’s) is located next door to the original at 643 Broadway between Bleecker and West Third Street. Today’s waitresses, rumored to wear corsets and fishnets—harkening back to that lusty bohemian culture—serve Leaves of Grass cocktails in honor of Whitman.
Another favorite tavern from this time period was the legendary Old Grapevine Tavern. Located on what would now be Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street, the Grapevine—named for the grapevine growing on its Eleventh Street side—attracted a clientele of impressive variety: artists, judges, businessmen, politicians, almost everyone! (Except for women, that is, as this was before Prohibition when speakeasies spawned the intermingling of the sexes in bars.) News traveled fast at the clapboard tavern, and it is where the phrase crooned by Marvin Gaye in 1968, “I heard it through the grapevine,” originated. Sadly, the grapevine died in 1883 and was cut down from the building’s edifice. The tavern closed its doors in 1915 and was replaced by a six-story apartment building, the average room renting for around $8.
Storefront of the Old Grapevine Tavern, early 19th century. Source: Ephemeral New York
By the 1960s, Greenwich Village’s cultural renaissance was complete: it had effectively established itself as a the Bohemian center and culture engine, as Strausbaugh calls is, for the entire Western world. Rivaling that of 1920s Paris and Berlin or Elizabethan England, by this time there was such a great concentration of artists in the Village that it is absolutely dizzying: art moved into the American avante garde with Pollack, de Kooning, and Rothko; theater saw the arrival of Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway; the Beats—Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac—met and began producing work together; Charlier Parker brought Be Bop to the Village; the Village Voice became a common edition to newsstands; Jimi Hendrix was discovered in the Village (though he went by Jimi James then); Andy Warhol linked up with the Velvet Underground; and the list goes on. It was a time “fizzy with collaboration” as poet/playwright/professor/Village inhabitant Kenneth Koch said.
Of course, June 28, 1969, also brought the Stonewall Riots: demonstrations of the gay community against police raids at the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia owned bar that accepted patrons of all sexual orientations despite a severely anti-homosexual political and social system. Though change was slow, this uprising is cited as the turning point in the gay rights movement. To this day, Gay Pride parades are held in late June worldwide to commemorate Stonewall.
Storefront of the Stonewall Inn taken in September 1969, three months after the Stonewall Riots. The lettering in the window reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village.” Source: Wikipedia
Though Greenwich Village maintains some of its artistic proclivities of yesteryear, the immense concentration of bohemians is no longer. What was once a “tiny spec where subatomic particles bounced off one another,” as Strausbaugh referred to the Village when he waxed nostalgic in his talk, has been forced to dismantle due to rising rent. If Greenwich Village has a lesson to teach, it’s that when so much creativity from so many walks of life is housed in such a small space, it is downright phenomenal what can come of it. Strausbaugh ended his talk by cautioning the crowd: “If you price the artists out, you are impoverishing your life.”
If you’d like to learn more bawdy details about the Village’s extensive list of rollicking former inhabitants or ground yourself in its fascinating journey from farmland to Bohemian world culture-engine, pick up Strausbaugh’s 624-page book at your local bookstore. If it’s half as engrossing as his talk, you’re in for a treat. (McNally Jackson of Prince Street supplied the books for the event. Feel free to check them out for a copy!)
Want to attend a future talk in the series? Head to the General Society Library’s website for more information on their upcoming events.