It’s easy to knock Greenwich Village. Once a hotbed of radical and artistic activity, its narrow winding streets now sometimes seem too tame, its restored buildings too cute, its shops and boutiques too artsy and out of sync with sleek, modern times. Only the well-to-do can afford to live here now, and nearly all the dingy old dives have gone safely commercial and mainstream. Worst of all, the streets are always filled with busloads of tourists and bands of roving teenagers looking for wild, sinful times.
And yet, Greenwich Village cannot be dismissed that easily. For all its patina of tourism and well-fed complacency, it still has a bohemian soul lurking somewhere underneath. You can feel it sometimes in the old jazz clubs, or in Washington Square on a windy afternoon, or in the faces of some of the older residents, who saw it all happen, not so long ago.
Once an Algonquin village, Greenwich Village was settled by Dutch tobacco farmers in the late 1600s and by English landowners in the early 1700s. By the 1790s, however, the large estates were breaking up as New Yorkers fled north to escape the yellow-fever epidemics in Lower Manhattan.
During the epidemics, the city erected barricades along Chambers Street to prevent people from returning to the infected areas, and Greenwich Village started filling up with stores, banks, and other businesses.
Over the next few decades, Greenwich Village turned into a low-rent backwater that attracted immigrants. First came the Irish in the 1850s, then the African Americans after the Civil War, and the Italians in the 1890s.
Around 1910, artists and writers also discovered the low rents, and soon the area was teeming with artistic and political activity. Max Eastman founded his radical paper, The Masses; tea rooms, literary bars, and basement poetry clubs sprouted up; and theater groups flourished. Among the Village residents during this period were Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bette Davis, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and e. e. cummings. Greenwich Village’s tolerance of “the Third Sex,” as gays and lesbians were discreetly called, also dates from this period.
In the 1960s, folk clubs, antiwar rallies, and the civil rights movement brought to the Village another wave of new settlers, including Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. In 1969, the Village’s Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the national gay-rights movement.
Nearly every street in Greenwich Village has something interesting to offer, and you can’t go wrong just wandering about. But be sure to bring a map—there’s no grid system here and even the locals get confused.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition