By John Bredin
There are few places in America, or the world, with the active civic life of Greenwich Village. Where else would a 90-year-old zoning maven named Doris Diether, who puts the big shot developers in their place, be feted like a celebrity by an overflow, dignitary-studded crowd at Judson church—as she was last month—looking more like Doris Day in her pink feather boa.
Of course the Village has a famous reputation of protest, rebellion, and resistance to the powers-that-be to live up to. In the early years of the twentieth century, radical luminaries like Emma Goldman and John Reed (both depicted in the 1981 film Reds, which won a best-director Oscar for Warren Beatty) helped establish the Village as America’s premiere social justice enclave. So did Villager John Dewey, the noted American philosopher who—steeped in a Jeffersonian Enlightenment tradition—believed the fundamental purpose of schools was to nurture citizenship and a stronger democracy.
By the sixties, Lenny Bruce was sticking it to “the man” in Village nightclubs, Jane Jacobs (the precursor to Doris Diether) was putting the kibosh on Robert Moses’ horrible plan to cut the Village in half with a super-highway, while Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were elevating protest folk songs into a great American art.
I discovered the Village in the mid-1990s, while I was becoming an educator. As a result of this magic confluence, of being “Village-ized” at the dawn of my teaching vocation, the themes which animate my work in classrooms have a lot to do with freedom, community, imagination, and a resistance to the “way things are” for how they “might be” in a more loving, joyful, and peaceful world. Sounds utopian? Well, that was precisely the spirit of the pre-gentrified Village of yore, though remnants of this idealism can still be found in scattered pockets here and there.
Finding my way into these redoubts of bohemia, which include Judson church, the Village Independent Democrats, and 69 Charles Street (the hub of WestView News) made me a more liberating person, and teacher: by osmosis. Expanding my pedagogical mission beyond the classroom, in 2010 I created a nonprofit TV show with my wife called Public Voice Salon. Our guests have included Village civic heroes like WestView editor George Capsis, district leaders Keen Berger & Arthur Schwartz, film critic and activist Jim Fouratt, and Sharon Woolums: who’s fighting to keep rents reasonable for mom and pop shops.
We even filmed a show at two of the Villages most treasured—but now departed—cultural spaces: the Brecht Forum (which has since moved to Brooklyn), and what was once an intellectual book lover’s dream: Left Bank Books. Now on You Tube, these shows offer the world a free Greenwich Village-based education in civics.
Though he chronicles the Village’s loss of soul, charm, and character in his excellent documentary The Lost Village, filmmaker Roger Paradiso also shows the feisty spirit of renewal as activists…notably Sharon Woolums….struggle to change the laws to protect small businesses (like the recently shuttered Cornelia Street Café) from predatory landlords who care not about culture, community, or people, but only about profits. In fact, the very last line in his film is: “don’t give up hope!” I believe copies of the DVD are on sale at the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bookstore on Carmine St.
Though “civic education” once seemed like a staid and fusty subject, suddenly it’s all the rage. Whether it’s a reaction to the growing distrust in our government, to Trump’s autocratic nature, or to the growing feeling that our democracy is in greater peril than we thought, a Renaissance in Civics is now in full swing. The actor Richard Dreyfuss helped pave the way for this civics revival with his Dreyfuss Civics Initiative. He’s made the rounds on all the big talk shows (and even on our show!) to speak about the vital link between the health of our democracy and the quality of civics education in our schools.
I’d like to invite Richard to the Village! In particular, to 69 Charles, an appropriate place since it was once the home of the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature: Sinclair Lewis. Lewis wrote a semi-satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here, which gives a fictitious account of fascism coming to America. To make sure this stays fictitious, a civic salon in the Village with Mr. Dreyfuss might be helpful. Magically, a key plot point in the 1977 film The Goodbye Girl, which earned Dreyfuss a best actor Oscar, also happened in a theater…wait for it…on Charles Street! How about a play or film to save democracy?
The author is host of the nonprofit TV show Public Voice Salon, an open dialogue on culture and ideas.