By Alan Wexler
While wandering through the narrow and winding streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, it’s difficult not to stumble upon connections to America’s literary heritage, from the early19th Century to the recent past.
Perhaps the quirky street pattern of the Village, a far different one from the rigid grid of perpendicular, parallel and numbered streets and avenues just to the north, helps explain the allure this enclave has had over the centuries for generations of equally quirky writers and other creative artists who lived and worked within its environs.
Before the 1820s, Greenwich Village was indeed a village of sorts, a remote country outpost, north of the hustle and bustle of old New York, and then concentrated south of Canal Street in the lower end of the island of Manhattan. But outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and yellow fever, unchecked until modern sewage and sanitation could contain them in later years, often ravaged the residential districts both east and west of lower Broadway. People died in large numbers, old and young, rich and poor alike. The poor, crowded into the wretched slums that became the Lower East Side, could do little but watch as their friends and family members sickened and died during these periodic plagues that often struck during the warmer summer months. The more affluent had the luxury of moving away from these horrors, and the pastoral suburbs of Greenwich Village beckoned them.
Washington Square Park, which had been just a few years before a cemetery for poor people north of the city, soon became an attractive residential district that brought the more well-to-do up from the squalid congestion of lower Manhattan. Greek Revival townhouses, with their mini-colonnaded facades, soon appeared along its boundaries, many still surviving on the north side of the park, and the street became a residential strip for those affluent refugees. The one at 18 Washington Square North became the home of the grandmother of a writer often identified with Greenwich Village (but who spent little of his career in America), and who set one of his most memorable works within it: Henry James, author of Washington Square.
Yet even before Henry James, before the Bohemians of the 1910s and 1920s, before Jack Kerouac and the Beats of the 1950s, before Bob Dylan and the Folk Music scene of the 1960s, Greenwich Village had been drawing its share of literary lions.
In 1809, the American Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine died in a wood frame house at 59 Grove Street, now occupied by Marie’s Crisis, a piano bar aptly named for both Marie Antoinette, who lost her head in Paris when Paine lived there during the French Revolution, and for one of his polemical works, The Crisis, that cheered on the American revolutionary cause with the phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
The great chronicler of the early American frontier, James Fenimore Cooper, upon his return from Europe in 1833, took up residence with his family at 149 Bleecker Street, then a newly fashionable district, right next door to where the legendary entertainment club, The Bitter End would later host the early careers of such show business legends as Bob Dylan, Jerry Seinfeld and Madonna.
Louisa May Alcott, author of that classic account of Civil War era life in Boston, Little Women, lived and wrote some of that novel between 1867 and 1870 in a house her uncle had built more than ten years earlier at 130-132 MacDougal Street, a stretch of the Village now crowded with falafel joints, comedy clubs and bars for binge-drinking students from nearby New York University.
By the 1890s, the great tides of immigration into Manhattan from Southern and Eastern Europe, the onslaught of all those “tired, poor, huddled masses,” and especially all of that “wretched refuse” from Europe’s “teeming shore”, soon caused the well-to-do of Greenwich Village to pick up stakes and relocate to tonier neighbors uptown around Madison Square Park and beyond. The area now known as the South Village then became more Italian in its demographic makeup. Neighborhood cafes frequented at first by Italians after work would later become venues for Beat poetry recitals in the 1950s and introduce the practice of sipping syrupy espresso from tiny cups to hipster America long before anyone ever heard of Starbucks. The more gentile bluebloods and Knickerbocker descendants of the original Greenwich Village had decamped from their quaint neighborhood of tasteful row houses that rapidly were transformed into cheap apartments and rooming houses.
The more creatively inclined of that era and the years afterward gravitated toward Greenwich Village, drawn not only by the abundance of affordable housing, but by the unique charm of its streets, not as squalid and crowded as the Lower East Side which had become so overpopulated by then so as to make it a candidate for the “Calcutta of North America.”
Alan Wexler is the author of The Encyclopedia of Exploration and The Atlas of Westward Expansion, both published by Facts On File. Mr. Wexler has also written hundreds of historical entries for Microsoft’s online encyclopedia, Encarta, as well as several joke books for Zebra Press.
This article is reprinted with the permission of The Greenwich Village Literary Review, an online literary publication, whose writers and editor meet once a month at the Jefferson Market Library.
The second half of this article, highlighting authors of the 20th century, will appear in next month’s issue.