Whenever my French friends visit New York, they ask me whether to go to the Empire State Building or Times Square first. It takes some explaining to convince them to skip both and to instead head to my home neighborhood, here in the West Village.
“Don’t you just go there to buy shoes?” they ask.
For some reason, our neighborhood has a reputation for being a shoe mecca, and not much else.
As all of us West Villagers know, there is so much more to do here than to merely discover the latest in shoes. For starters there are some great scarf and sweater boutiques.
However, beyond the shopping, the West Village offers some of the best historic sightseeing in all of New York – a fact I try to impress upon my fellow French citizens.
I flew 800 miles to see Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in Chicago a few years ago. Reading the caption, I realized that I have spent the last 40 years living a mere five blocks from its setting. (The famous scene is said to be inspired by a restaurant at the intersection where West 11th Street runs into Greenwich and 7th Avenues.) Yes, the painting was stunning, but the West Village is the real thing.
Furthermore,how many times have you walked past tourists ogling the Dakota building on Central Park West? “This is where John Lennon was shot,” they whisper in a myriad of languages. As I remind my French friends visiting the city, they’d do just as well to stroll around the West Village and see where John Lennon lived. On October 16, 1971, a mere five days after the song Imagine hit the charts, the couple moved to their home on Bank Street, where they would spend the next several years. Imagine that.
A few blocks away, on Bedford Street, lived the prolific author William Burroughs. It was here in the West Village that Burroughs befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The three primary figures of the Beat Generation, they rank among the most influential writers in 20th century America. Walk the streets of the West Village and you are stepping on hallowed ground that inspired them to write such seminal works as Junkie, Howl, and On The Road.
“That’s nice,” my friends say, “but where will we eat?” (Any visitor to New York wants to take in the city’s gastronomic delights, but French visitors are particularly eager to enjoy the culinary scene.) This is my real chance to lure my French friends from Uptown.
I’m convinced that the West Village is the best foodie neighborhood in the city. We’ve got it all. There’s the best fish at Mary’s and the freshest octopus at Frankies Spuntino. There’s the juiciest hamburger at the Spotted Pig and the coziest atmosphere at Bobo. There’s the creamiest polenta at Tremont, and Italian food to rival anything in Florence at Sant Ambroeus and Morandi (the latter’s ricotta fritters really should make it onto every New York visitor’s must-taste list). For the caffeine lovers, there’s Jack’s Coffee for the finest local brew and that’s not to mention Waverly Inn – the legendary Bank Street restaurant that may or may not be haunted.
Of course, the best evenings end with music, and once again I must convince my French visitors to stay in the West Village and enjoy its melodic offerings. Jazz fans are happy to hear that the Vanguard Jazz club is here, along with the Café Bohemia and the Blue Note. Some of the greatest names in jazz history have played at these clubs, and while I know that Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk won’t be playing when I walk in, I can’t help but feel their presence as I sit and enjoy the improvised solos.
After all this, if my French friends still won’t consider the trek south from their Midtown hotels to our West Village streets – cobbled and quaint – I have to resign myself to enjoying the neighborhood as it is. A little quieter, a little less frequented, and a little better for it.
Now do excuse me, as I need to go buy some shoes.