John Strausbaugh’s new book, The Village, subtitled, 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues – A History of Greenwich Village is out for the Spring/Summer season and it is a must read for anyone interested in the history and lore of the Village. This neighborhood is probably the most famous in the world, not unlike the Paris Left Bank,where breakthrough changes in art, literature, philosophy,and music was the order of the day. It is true that if you came to Greenwich Village you could literally do your own thing and enjoy the fun and excitement. Many who came to the Village in search of their true identity ran away from stifling small towns or uptight suburbs.
Written by veteran newspaperman (NY Press, NY Times,and Washington Post) and prolific author John Strausbaugh, it encompasses the entirety in both a historical sense and an entertaining fashion, taking the reader on a journey from the 1600s to the present day; 600 pages and counting. This is a weighty tome to be sure; in an intellectual,insightful sense it never disappoints. The author takes us to Paris in the 1830s where the term ‘Bohemian’first came into play prior to ‘Bohemia’ arriving in New York City and Greenwich Village about 20 years later. In the prim Victorian age, he writes, “Bored uptown New Yorkers flocked to Greenwich Village taverns and spaghetti houses hoping to catch glimpses of authentic artists and Bohemians.” Jumping out at us from the pages of The Village are riveting subjects and true accounts of the many icons and legends who came into their own in the Village including the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, playwright Eugene O’Neill of the Provincetown Players,Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, the Beat generation breakthrough of the late 1950s, and into what Strausbaugh terms, the radical 1960s.
Think of a burly, unshaven man wearing an American flag sweatshirt named Joe Cino serving up a steaming hot cup of cappuccino at his Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street. During the ‘60s, customers in the cramped coffee shop watched new playwrights including Lanford Wilson,Sam Shepard, Tom Eyen, Robert Patrick, John Guare, Jeff Weiss, Paul Foster, David Starkweather, H. M. Koutoukas, Jean-Claude Van Italie, William M. Hoffman, Wilson, and others present their first plays. The spot at 31 Cornelia Street (now The Po Restaurant) has a bronze plaque acknowledging it historically as ‘the birthplace of off-off Broadway.’
Poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Frank O’Hara are placed into the Village context here in addition to the increase of speakeasies during Prohibition, which includes joints such as The Pirate’s Den, Marie’s Crisis, and Chumley’s. All over MacDougal Street in the explosive 1960s was the folk music of Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Judy Collins, Eric Anderson, Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez and early Rock n’ Roll groups like The Mamas and The Papas, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Velvet Underground were happening in places like The Cafe Wha? where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Tiny Tim broke through, or The Nite Owl (later Bleecker Bob’s Records),and Cafe Bizarre, these last two on 3rd Street. One of the chapters intensely examines the Stonewall uprising on Christopher Street in 1969.
The Village is a roller coaster ride through the centuries and the break through decades of the 1920s and 1960s and the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Alas, the Bohemian culture of the old Village crash lands into the uphill upscale real estate boom of the 1980s (some now refer to that time as ‘the AIDies’),1990s, and into the present day of exorbitant rents,the Madison Avenue fashion world shopping mall transformation of Bleecker Street, and money crazy real estate hysteria up to the point wherein the Village that everyone thought they knew is now referred to as ‘Hollywood East.’In the final chapters of his book, Strausbaugh doesn’t spare us from the new excesses of our time. In the epilogue,the author quotes composer and musician David Amram, “We were all so lucky to have been in the Village when you didn’t have to be a one percenter to rent a place.”
This amazing, thorough history is recommended here without reservation. We agree that the book The Village is simply the best. Published by Harper Collins under the Ecco imprint, it is available at bookstores everywhere, online, at the Strand or at our favorite Village bookstore, Three Lives on West 10th Street and Waverly Place, across from Julius one of the oldest still standing operational taverns in the Village.
John Strausbaugh will be talking at the Coffeehouse Chronicles at La Mama on East 4th Street on Saturday, June 8 at 3 PM.
Robert Heide and John Gilman are the co-authors of the 1995 book Greenwich Village – A Primo Guide to Shopping, Eating and Making Merry in True Bohemia published by St. Martin’s Griffin, NY.