A short history of Greenwich Village

New York, they say, is a series of villages, each with its own distinctive character. This is what makes it so diverse and endlessly fascinating. But of all the villages in the Big Apple, none is more famous and interesting than Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village

The American Indians called the patch land which lies between 14th Street, Houston Street, Broadway and the Hudson River Sapokanikan, or tobacco field. In the 17th century, the Dutch arrived and the farmers settled at Sapokanikan named it Noortwyck. In 1664 the British invaded, ousted the Dutch and established their city of New York nearby. Noortwyck became the site of the city cemetery. Still the former Dutch hamlet continued to develop until it officially became the village of Grin’wich in 1713. In 1822 a yellow fever epidemic in the city brought a new wave of settlers to Greenwich Village. It grew. At the same time New York was advancing to meet it and within a decade had absorbed it – the burial ground along with the narrow, oddly angled streets whose names remembered early villagers. The old burial ground became Washington Military Parade Ground and by the 1830s the surrounding streets were some of New York’s most desirable addresses, lined with respectable terraced housing. A few years later the parade ground was developed as a public park and to mark the anniversary of George Washington’s death the landmark arch was built. Soon Washington Square became the heart and centre of the village.

 

In 1831 New York University was established at the edge of Washington Square. It was the brainchild of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson. His aim was to found “in this immense and fast-growing city …a system of rational and practical education fitting for all and graciously open to all”. The new university attracted scholars and intellectuals, many of them from outside the upper classes who had traditionally filled the universities and furthermore free of their social. Around them gathered the artists, the actors, the musicians, writers and the avant garde set who were to forge Greenwich Village’s fame.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Greenwich Village was an enclave of culture. In 1914, Gertrude Whitney opened the Whitney studio Club, where emerging artists could exhibit their works at 8 West 8th Street. In 1931 it became the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1936 abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman set up an art school in West 9th Street and taught there until 1958. In 1964, when the Whitney moved to its present location, 8 West 8th Street became home to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, founded by artist Mercedes Matter.

The performing arts thrived. Isadora Duncan, the matriarch of modern dance, lived and worked from the Village. Iconic New York Theatres opened, like the Cherry Lane and the Astor Place. Music flourished. Jazz took root here in its early days and by the 1950s Greenwich Village was New York’s centre of underground jazz. With the 1960s came folk music and the truly great names of the genre all seem to have got their start in Greenwich Village. The Mamas and the Papas met here. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton found fame here. Bob Dylan wrote and debuted most of his first, timeless greats in Greenwich Village. Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground and the legendary Jimi Hendrix were all talents “born” in the Village. Then, of course, there were the Village People. Music clubs proliferated – the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Café Wha, the Bitter End and the Lion’s Den.

Many writers, too, made their homes in Greenwich Village, including the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Dylan Thomas lived here and collapsed while on a bender at the Whitehorse Tavern in 1953. Works of literature were set in the village, most notably those of poet Allen Ginsburg and novelists William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Village bookstores and publications reflected the diverse and (for those times) tolerant character of the community. The Oscar Wilde bookshop, established in Greenwich Village in 1967 is the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the world. The news weekly, the Village Voice, was the counterculture mouthpiece, the watchdog and critic of stale, stuffy old Middle America.

From the beginning, Greenwich Village had been a haven for a Bohemian set who disregarded conventional values and mores. One such was the French painter Marcel Duchamp struck a revolutionary blow by launching balloons from the Washington Square Arch and declaring Greenwich Village an independent state. In the 1950s a new and different kind of revolutionary, on the run from mainstream society and its oppressive conventions, sought refuge in the tolerant streets of Greenwich Village. These were students, writers, artists, musicians, idealists and free thinkers who would soon come to be known as the Beat Generation, then the Beats, then Beatniks. They prepared the ground and sowed the seeds of the great cultural and social revolution which was to follow in the next decade – the hippie movement. And following that, Greenwich Village became the epi-centre of Gay Liberation.

So, what is Greenwich Village like today? Find out in Travelstripe’s next post.