By Annunziata Gianzero
My eyes strain to make out the words on the flag as it curls and ripples in the North River wind. “Don’t give up the ship!” the bright blue battle flag declares. His dying friend’s last words had become Commander Perry’s anthem, inspiring him to an illustrious victory over the British in 1813. After the battle, the West Village street, originally Henry (and formerly Ogden), is renamed Perry Street in the naval captain’s honor.
Where am I? I have been transported to the past by stories, which are embedded in the brick and mortar of the Village. The pictures in my mind are made more vivid by the landmark district in which I live. These stories are being told by local West Village history buff Joe Ienco, a guy with a thick Brooklyn accent, a collection of historical Village maps, and a romantic love of the West Village.
Joe carefully unfolds the maps and traces his fingers over the streets, while telling stories of the elevated trains, the children’s orphanage, Perry’s battle at Lake Erie, the one block of Charles Street which was named Van Nest Place, and the tales of 1920s swimmers diving off Charles Street docks. He compares one map to another to illustrate how he determines when these street names changed. And, oftentimes, he’ll tell you why.
Joe recounts all of this as if he had been there, as if he were an old man who somehow managed to live 250 years. Yet he’s still young and passionately dedicated to restoring buildings to their past grandeur. It’s not long before you feel you’re there, too…
It’s 1797 as I stand on West Street, mesmerized by the mammoth structure at the water’s edge, just off Skinner [Christopher] Street. A young woman whispers in my ear, “My brother Charles is in there. He was convicted of swindling. His cellmate is a horse-thief.” “I’m sorry,” I whisper back. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” she says, “we really didn’t have a home. In fact,” she points westward, “he was at that pub so often, his prison file records it as his ‘place of abode’…so the officials knew where to find him.”
Since New York City was almost entirely south of Canal Street at that time, criminals were often ferried up the Hudson to New York’s first state prison (Newgate), which is how the expression that convicts were “sent up the river” was born. Joe fills in the details that inspire my musings because he has found those old prison registers. They evoke more stories, since I have now become a novice historian and time traveler.
Back when the Hudson River was called the North River, the entire East River was the Hell-Gait River and Houston Street was called North Street (which gives you an idea of just how southerly the main city was). Our little hamlet was named “Green Village” because it wasn’t much more than farmland and country estates. Technically, Greenwich translates to “green village” so our moniker actually means “green village village” but no one cared to clear up the redundancy. A village within a village? How apropos.
Indeed, it’s hard to miss the quaint charm of the West Village. Most visitors enjoy it superficially while vaguely wondering about the strange deviation from the rest of the City’s right-angle-aligned street grid.
It’s late 1760s as I amble down one of the oldest streets in the West Village, Monument Lane. It’s the guiding line from where the street grid is tipped. As I journey up this ancient path, the years accrue. By the time I’ve reached the end of the street, the Revolutionary War is fought and won, and the street name has changed to Greenwich Lane. Bank Street has been here since after the devastating 1798 yellow fever epidemic downtown when the Bank of New York purchased eight lots on it, as a precaution to impending quarantine.
Just this week, I learned that my building will be restored to landmark façade and colors. I stood outside on what was once called “The Road to Greenwich,” and wondered what it would have been like to inhabit the complex in the early 1800s, when it was built. Just one block away, that first state prison would have just closed, its prisoners transferred to the newly constructed Sing Sing.
When you live in a historic district surrounded by people who are committed to keeping its past alive, it’s not hard to imagine life as it was hundreds of years ago…
It’s 1806 and I stroll down Asylum Street and bump into Elizabeth Hamilton (yes, Alexander’s wife!) as she ushers six young children back into the little orphanage which she co-founded with Isabella Graham and her daughter Joanna Bethune (namesake of Bethune Street). Once the New York Orphan Asylum is moved uptown and the street grid system takes hold (although our little ‘hood remains relatively untouched and notably “off the grid” from the rest of the City), this portion of the street will be renamed and included in West 4th Street.
Late at night in the silence of the City, when the traffic dies down and the citizens sleep, you can almost hear the horse and buggies creaking in a nearby street. From certain angles, when you squint your eyes in different ways, it looks exactly as if you’re in the past.
“Don’t give up this ship!” Joe opines, “That’s kind of the anthem of the West Village,” as he aims to keep its past alive. I thank all of you passionate Villagers who strive to do the same. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, and guys like Joe—Villagers preserving and recounting the stories, remembering the people, and the ways of our past.
If we keep sharing our anecdotes, we can knit together the fabric of the past. Please share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that they will endure.