By Fr. Graeme Napier, Rector, St. John’s in the Village
Greenwich Village has a historic and enduring place in the world of the arts. Music of many kinds, visual arts, literature, architecture and dance have flourished here at different periods in very different ways: from the Lenape culture in this south-western shore of Lenapehoking, through the hybrid Afro-Dutch folk song and art of the freed slaves who had smallholdings here from the 1620s, to the vibrant galleries, music colleges, performance venues, jazz clubs, bookshops, libraries, modern architecture, and theaters of today’s Village. As well as being a crucible in which much great art has been forged, the Village has itself featured within art: in painting, song, photography, poetry, and prose (both fiction and non-fiction).
A diverse collection of images of the Village, many by Village artists, are on display this month at Revelation Gallery (224 Waverly Place) in the exhibition Framing the Village, which is part of the annual Village Trip arts festival.
One of the more charming appearances of the Village in fiction is its adoption as the mise-en-scène of the British novel This Lower World (Richard Major, IndieBooks, 2020). The fourth of Major’s seven published novels, This Lower World is set in Lower Manhattan: in a Village improved on reality (if that is possible). The Church of St. Polycarp in the City is a thinly disguised St. John’s in the Village (corner of Waverly Place and West 11th Street). The novel also concerns an imaginary mansion in Gramercy Park and an imaginary palace on Abingdon Square.
In the 1890s a certain dizzy Vanderbilt heiress, a relation of ours, scooped up the goods in Europe: here a Tuscan library, there an Umbrian ceiling, paintings from Naples, gloomy woodwork from Rome, tapestries from some broken-down bishops’ lair in the Tyrol, bits of marble façade, scraps of parquetry. She shipped the lot over and assembled it as a giant-sized playhouse to please her handsome little wop of a husband, a dentist’s son named Bocchi, Bacchi or Bicchi.
Faith to move mountains is a slight thing, mountains being formless and inert. Cousin Elaine might easily have consoled Bocchi with an Apennine. Instead she flew over a whole slab of European civilization, which landed with every carved panel in its proper place, majolica vases upright on mantels.
Its presence in Greenwich Village has always been insane. Even when it first arrived it must have seemed quaint, plonked down amidst the mellow colonial houses then facing Abingdon Square, named for dear old Willoughby Bertie, Earl of Abingdon, another connection of us Bertrams as it happens. The eighteenth century faded slowly in Abingdon Square. But it has thoroughly faded now. The aristocratic townhouses have been blotted out by bleak apartment buildings, with only Elaine’s palazzo surviving on the north-west corner of the square, peering shortsightedly at flowering trees and a particularly bloodthirsty statue of a doughboy. It looks, now, positively unearthly, beamed in by sportive flying saucers. Although really, human sex is the uncanny force that beamed it down. ….
The author is very much a New Yorker. Although born, bred, and educated in various corners of the Commonwealth, he holds New York City to be the center of the universe and the West Village to be the center of New York. Dr. Major lived here in the 2000s, was married here a quarter of a century ago, but currently lives and works for the State Department in Jerusalem.
He will hold a “homecoming” to New York this month at St. John’s in the Village (“St. Polycarp in the City”) at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, 11 September, when he will give an address on “Jesus the Bohemian.” This is St John’s annual Homecoming Sunday, welcoming back those who have left the Village for the summer months (and those who stayed), when the 11:00 a.m. choral service with professional choir and string orchestra is followed by a traditional post-Labor-Day cookout in the beautiful enclosed courtyard garden. Dr. Major will be “at large” during this lunch, and copies of This Lower World (which he will happily sign) will be available.
For our September-long art exhibition Framing the Village: framing.eventbrite.com
For Homecoming Sunday and author Dr. Richard Major’s address and West Village cookout: HC2022.eventbrite.com