By Tom Lamia
Last month, I wrote of being “from away”—a Maine expression used for those “outside” of the local culture. In New York, the cultural divide comes up when “true” New Yorkers are recognized by their attitude and conduct, not in derogation of others, but as a tribute to an exceptional few. Several of those few live, or have lived, among us in the West Village.
One need not have been born in the Village to qualify. Many born in the Village move to less exciting and less expensive places but retain their claim to being true New Yorkers.
I think of the four sons of my good friends John and Lucy Carney, who lived above the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in the late 1960s. At the time, John was a new associate at a downtown law firm. The Lion’s Head is now gone, along with its writers, storytellers, liars, and drinkers (most qualified in all of those categories). John and Lucy more or less immediately produced four sons. All went to Village public schools until the family relocated to Pelham in their teenage years. Three of the four boys became opinion writers and editors with major newspapers and appear regularly on political shows. They are all “from away” under the Maine definition, but these guys are true New Yorkers. They are refined products of the Village literary and political culture: informed, opinionated, verbally combatant, and unafraid to propagate and promote unpopular positions. They will debate you in a bar or at Thanksgiving dinner. They are lovable characters, in the know and in your face—true New Yorkers who will never be “from away” in the Village.
I consider myself a true West Villager, notwithstanding my current residence in South Bristol, Maine. My years of living at 54 Charles Street were the most interesting of my life. Those years were more than a sojourn; they provided enlightenment. During that time, new experiences and new possibilities were the norm. Some of those experiences were negative, some were trying, but the fact that I am writing this proves that they made an impression. My pride in being a New Yorker in Maine shows (I wear my Yankees cap despite the many slurs it attracts).
Why proud? One reason is the melting pot of New York, where newcomers are welcome. An itinerant history is a plus. In our New York enclave, there are writers, artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, restaurateurs; all benefit from new arrivals with diverse backgrounds. Also, here we have the non-gentry, the mavericks, characters, social misfits, and odd personalities. These, too, are welcome and welcoming: the priests and rabbis with and without parishes or followers; street people (I think of Eddie on Charles Street who lived in doorways when things were good, commuted from shelters when they weren’t); social action advocates (tolerated among the tolerant); retirees on inadequate incomes (occupying ever smaller and ever more remote spaces); and even rent control manipulators (you know who you are).
Once in the West Village, my eyes were opened to its unique residential, cultural, and historical character. George Capsis directed my attention to architectural details in our house. Frank Upham showed me the importance of civility towards the homeless that live among us. Gilda Lavalle provided a window into the history of her house and her backyard garden.
Then there was the twice-weekly ritual of alternate side parking—an hour and a half of sitting in the car awaiting the sweeper. After a few months, I needed something more than the Times. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was recommended; it was the essential primer on what makes our neighborhood livable. Ms. Jacobs’ appreciation of the architectural and planning value underlying the arrangement of our streets, houses, shops, and sidewalk play areas marked her genius.
A true New Yorker? Well, she was not from the West Village. She came from Scranton, with a short stay in Brooklyn, and chose the West Village based solely on what she saw from the West 4th Street subway station on a lunch break survey of New York neighborhoods. After her New York triumphs, and when the Vietnam War draft threatened her sons, she left for Canada. She had confronted Robert Moses and the City’s political and developer elites and won. Yes, that is a true New Yorker.