When I headed down to Greenwich Village on a grey October day, this was my quest; I was looking for that 300 year old village with a hodge-podge of streets and Washington Square as its green heart. I was searching for that cultural enclave where Gertrude Whitney had made a space for American art and where Isadora Duncan had danced as no-one had before. I was looking for those streets where Bob Dylan had walked, that club where Jimi Hendrix had played, those places and those characters from the beat generation that I had found in the Kerouac novels I’d read a lifetime ago and a world away. And did I find it?
Greenwich Village streets are still old village streets. Anomalies in Modern New York’s grid of numbered roads, they are narrow, mismatched and named for village fathers – Mercer, Bleecker and Leroy. Nor have the skyscrapers of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan colonized the landscape. Restricted development has safeguarded the mid-rise apartments, criss-crossed with iron fire-escapes, the terraced housing and the one-family walk-ups. However behind the façades, many vast condominiums have swallowed up whole blocks. Greenwich Village is now more the domain of celebrities and millionaires who have made it, like actress Uma Thurman and Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine, than unknown artists and rising stars.
Historic Washington Square Park is still the centre and heart of the neighbourhood. Students lounge on its lawns. Ideas are thrashed out on its benches. But a new age has seen the rise of new leisure pastimes and new playgrounds, like “the Cage”, the basketball courts above the sixth Avenue subway station where the New York street ball competition takes place.
The village is still a cultural enclave. Theatre and music are thriving. The Astor Place Theatre lives on, now as the home of the Blue Man Group. The Village Vanguard and The Blue Note still feature the big names of jazz. At Café Wha, The Bitter End and The Lion’s Den new legends are born. And now Greenwich Village has its own orchestra.
The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture still remains, on that hallowed ground on West 8th Street. Galleries and exhibition spaces abound.
The Oscar Wilde bookstore is still trading and around it the Gay community has blossomed. The Village Voice is still strong, still putting the alternative view, still keeping watch on the system, although it speaks now from pages padded with ads for call girls and phone sex.
The golden ages of bohemians and hippies have passed and their abandoned costumes hang in a host of Vintage fashion shops in Bleecker Street. They are picked up for startling sums by a new generation of non-conformists – neo-beats, born again hippies and Hendrix look-alikes. They come out in force for the annual Village Halloween Parade where the spectrum of the village’s diversity is displayed through the streets in a mile long file.
So although, old villagers would claim that much as been lost, much has been saved, at least for the outsider, (the tourist, in fact) like me. The village is still emphatically a village. The streets are vibrant. The people are colourful and if not revolutionary they are at least non-conformist. Billboards and posters show that things are happening here – creative, artistic things. There’s an air about the place that suggests that anything is possible. And to me it looked like a great place to live and work.