By Richard Eric Weigle
Do you know Who William Sydney Porter is? Well, if you do not, you are not alone. Maybe some of you know him simply by the name O’Henry. He is the author of hundreds of short stories usually with an ironic twist or a surprise ending. The Ransom of Red Chief, The Gift of The Magi and The Last Leaf are three of his most well known. The Last Leaf is probably my favorite short story of all time. It begins with an unforgettably descriptive passage about our beloved neighborhood.
“So to quaint old Greenwich Village the artistic people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs, a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue and started a colony.”
It is a haunting tale of struggling bohemians and the healing power of art and love.
With its atmospheric setting in a quaint Greenwich Village apartment overlooking a brick wall covered in ivy, and its well-drawn characters who are incredibly
vulnerable and real, it is a literary treasure. The fact that he wrote it while inspired by the wall of ivy he noticed in Grove Court has always been a source of great pride and interest for me.
What and where is Grove Court, you might ask? Grove Court is a private courtyard between 10 and 12 Grove Street with six quaint houses. It was built as housing for laborers and at one point it was so dilapidated that it became known as Pig Alley because of the pigs that ran loose in the courtyard. It was also known as Mixed Ale Alley presumedly because its residents could not afford to buy a mug of beer from a local pub and would have to collect the leftover beer from numerous containers mixing it all together before drinking. Today it is one of the most sought after addresses in New York providing a small oasis of peace and pristine beauty for its lucky residents.
Before moving to New York, O Henry lived in Texas where he embezzled money while working in a bank and because of this, he spent some time in prison. He started writing stories while incarcerated, and a friend would submit his work to publishers under the pen name O’Henry so that they would not know the stories were written by an inmate. Why O’Henry? One theory is that Henry was the name of his girlfriend’s cat and that she was constantly calling out “O’ Henry, what did you do now?” However, in a 1909 interview with the New York Times, he confessed that he just picked the name Henry out of the Society pages of a newspaper and added the “O” on the front. Whatever the case,
I am so grateful for his appreciation for Grove Court and for Grove Street, which has been my home for the last 45 years.
In the 1800’s Grove Street was first called Columbia Street, which was soon changed to Cozine Street after a prominent local family. It was then renamed Burrows Street after William Burrows, a local Navy War hero. Maybe the name was too close to neighboring Barrow Street and because the street already had a grove of trees alongside it, it finally became known as Grove Street.
Hart Crane and Thomas Paine called Grove St. home, and writer Calvin Trillin still does. Bette Midler lived on Grove Street for a while as well as on Barrow St. Actresses Kim Hunter and Veronica Lake also lived here for short periods of time.
So Grove Street has and does play a big part in literary and pop culture. You can glimpse Grove Street in many films including Warren Beatty’s Reds, Woody Allen’s Another Woman, The April Fools with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Denueve, the 2019 comedy Isn’t It Romantic? and in the final episode of Ryan Murphy’s new television series, The Politician.
Which brings us to Monica, Chandler, Joey, Rachel, Phoebe and Ross and another television show, Friends. How does a television show that went off the air in 2004 still have that many fans from around the world who seem to make an almost religious or spiritual pilgrimage to Grove and Bedford to see the famous Friends Building? Maybe it is because it is about friends, and we in the Village know about close relationships with neighbors and relying on friends. Although not a huge fan of the show, I will say that I was always impressed by the way they loved and cared for one another. They were rarely if ever cruel to one another and the humor usually came from their own insecurities and personality quirks and not from crude and cruel remarks as is common on many other shows from the same era. Do fans really think that except for the exterior shots of 90 Bedford St. that the series was filmed here? How many bus tours stop on Hudson St to allow fans and television geeks the opportunity to have their photo taken in front of that building? How many walking tours can our tiny street and its weary residents put up with? How should we react? Should we be angry and bitter that our sidewalks are taken over with tourists from all over the world and that we actually can hear their laughter and conversations? Should we lament days gone by before there was a television series called Friends when the few tourists who found Grove and Bedford Streets were actually looking at the architecture of the quaint houses or had actually heard of O’Henry or Hart Crane? Well, I have been thinking about how lucky we are to live in an area where people from around the world actually want to visit. I personally do not wish to live where no one else wants to even set foot. Whatever the reason, they are here, and along with whatever else they came to see, they are experiencing our beautiful tree-lined streets, our tree wells abundant with flowers, colorful birdhouses, and a variety of architecture from federal to Art Deco. They often seem amazed to find residents planting flowers or watering plants, strumming guitars and sitting on our stoops reading a newspaper or a book. There are definitely downsides to gentrification, increased tourism and boisterous lines outside local restaurants, but there is also something exciting, vibrant and urban about it that you can’t get from living in a cul-de-sac in Connecticut. The fact is that most of us are here by choice and it is up to us to keep Greenwich Village as a creative, artistic place. Maybe we do not have as many creative types and as many struggling artists as we have had in decades past, but we still have residents who open up their homes for salon performances and intimate evening soirées. We have spaces where we can study piano, pottery or Tai Chi. We now have a film festival that is in its 5th year and we have the iconic Cherry Lane Theater which is the oldest off Broadway theater in New York as well as many other vibrant off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theaters.
One day in the 1970’s while sitting on the stoop at 35 Grove St and reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I looked up to see James Baldwin, himself, walking down the street. He noticed me reading his book and we acknowledged each other’s presence and smiled. It was one of those brief and intimate encounters that can only happen in a city like New York, a magical moment that I will never forget. I was so starstruck, that I never even thought of asking for an autograph. I was a teacher at the time and had just taught his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and there he was, on my street in front of my building. I found out later that his literary agent lived at 17 Grove Street and that he would often walk down the block to go there.
There are so many memories from each decade that I have lived in the Village, but my life seemed to improve when I stopped wishing things would be like they used to be, and stopped bemoaning restaurants and shops that were no longer with us, and started to embrace the present and all the things that are so much better now than they were 25 years ago. I started to take the time to breathe and look around and enjoy the renovated buildings, the lower crime rate, the hundreds of new trees, the gorgeous waterfront promenades, the new bishop crook lamp posts and so much more. So just like one of O’Henry’s stories that had a surprise ending, isn’t it ironic that a television show produced in Los Angeles would be about friends in Greenwich Village who become more like family and actually do live up to the lyrics of the sitcom theme song that says “I’ll be there for you.”
Oh my god, now I am quoting lyrics from the theme songs of television sitcoms. Maybe I need to read something. Let me see. Hart Crane lived at 45 Grove St, and I know nothing about him. I need to read something written by Hart Crane. Now the hardest question of all: do I download his work on my Kindle or actually buy a book from a bookstore? Hmm, that is a dilemma that many of us are facing. Do I buy an actual book, support local businesses and enjoy the touch and smell of paper and the turning of the pages or do I download a digital copy that might be easier and better for the environment? No easy answers.
Maybe in the end we should pay some attention to why so many people relate to and gravitate toward Friends. When you think about it, it had no violence, no special effects and was mainly about supporting and loving one another. Yes, it could have been more racially diverse and many of us felt that there could have been gay characters, but it seems to resonate with people all over the world. We love Greenwich Village because we have a sense of community. We walk our neighbor’s dogs and shop for the sick and the elderly, work with our block associations to maintain our quality of life and try to make life better in any way that we can. Similar to the six characters in Friends, we support and are there for each other.
The Last Leaf is essentially about the friendship of two roommates, Sue and Johnsy, struggling to survive in a small Greenwich Village apartment. This theme is also repeated in the story, My Sister Eileen, which became the musical Wonderful Town, which tells the story of two sisters’ adventures while living on Christopher St.
I think that O’ Henry would be proud that his vision of friendship, love and Greenwich Village is as relevant and influential today as it was when it was written so many decades ago.