In the Pandemic Present, a Literary Tour of Greenwich Village’s Past
When my friend and I moved out of our pocket-sized apartment in Greenwich Village last October, our cat Evita Carol made a sound I will never forget. After all the furniture and four years of ephemera was slammed into a truck illegally parked on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson, I let her out – and she howled. It was a guttural scream, a meow-tinged eulogy for a place she once recognized and which now lay empty before her, gutted.
It wasn’t long before Evita Carol settled in our new location, not far away, overlooking Broadway. But I couldn’t get over this howling. As the cold crept in and New York City prepared for a bitter holiday season devoid of traditions, tourists, and daily rhythms, I stood out the window and looked at an unfamiliar sidewalk in a city ravaged by a brutal global pandemic. Our cat’s cry was the sound I would have made if I could – and I was well aware that I was one of the very lucky ones.
So I did what I did when Covid-19 started ravaging the city a year ago: I read. If the present was unprecedented, I wanted to delve into the past – especially the story of my beloved neighborhood, where our former turn-of-the-century apartment building and the largely intact blocks of houses that surround it had already withstood eerily similar moments and some far worse than this. Why not meet these eyewitnesses?
John Strausbaughs “THE VILLAGE: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Villains, A History of Greenwich Village “(624 pp., Ecco, 29.99 USD) was the first thing I hadn’t ever put into a streaming service. Last March, when the clock stalled with orders to stay home, I turned to Strausbaugh’s 2013 encyclopedia, which told the people and places that turned the escape of a patrician land into a neighborhood in the 17th century, whose name became an abbreviation for a certain type of artistic, political and sexual energy by the 20th. Strausbaugh delights in the details of how and why this tangle of uneven, sometimes diagonal streets, not just the one laid out in the commissioners’ plan of 1811 City network, but also contradicted social customs for centuries.
It is easy to get lost in the village, but with Strausbaugh’s context, I subconsciously found myself following the same winding paths that he had, all informed by tantalizing images of a neighborhood that in centuries past looked like it does today is still a little different. Here, in an undated picture, is Washington Arch, without the famous twin statues of George Washington, but with horse-drawn carts passing underneath (it’s now thankfully closed to traffic). And there, in an early 20th century photo, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is standing in front of the fun little 75½ Bedford Street, which has been dubbed the “tightest house in New York” and certainly looked like me Staring at picking up a post-jog croissant across the street.
But there were other houses that made me stop in my tracks: rows of them lining the leafy streets west of Sixth Avenue. Sure, their exclusivity was always tempting, but their changing architectural styles were sort of an obsession now that my other pre-pandemic pastimes were banned. BRICKS & BROWNSTONE: The New York Townhouse (352 pages, Rizzoli, $ 85), A 2019 reprint of the original 1972 text by Charles Lockwood and Patrick W. Ciccone with Jonathan D. Taylor provided the vocabulary I longed for. Dylan Chandler’s photographs take readers on a visual tour of the earliest federal-style houses in New York from the Revolutionary Period through the mid-19th century Greek revival (exemplified by the impressive row of houses on the north side of Washington Square Park), to the Brownstone craze that coincided with Italian style (typed in brick front shape at 290 West 4th Street, another favorite on my daily route) and beyond. There are interiors too – elegant, light-filled fantasies like 37 West 11th Street that the only way I could get a guilty glimpse was standing on tiptoe.
Closer to home in every way was George Chauncey “GAY NEW YORK: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Emergence of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (Illustrated. 512 p., Basic Books, paper, $ 22.99), First published in 1994 and updated in 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Chauncey’s book is a monumental exploration of how New York’s nascent queer communities were forged from the late 19th century through World War II. Admittedly, I was more interested in a little scandal surrounding the literal corner of our old apartment at 157 Bleecker Strasse. The building currently houses a gastropub that is popular with outdoor dining. This building once housed a great bar called The Slide, which Chauncey reports served a clientele popularly and often disparagingly known as “fairies” in the 1890s. It’s the next step I can take into a crowded queer bar for the time being.
And then we moved. I had gotten so used to the almost eerie, quiet, obstructed view of the dingy courtyard we faced on Thompson Street that the soaring skyscrapers and the roar of the now-empty Crosstown buses on Broadway were confusing. I missed the size of the city below Washington Square and resented the buildings blocking the already limited afternoon light. And so I decided to learn something about her – if only to be able to judge her more smugly.
The author, William Hennessey WALKING BROADWAY: 13 Miles of Architecture and History (Illustrated, 224 pages, The Monacelli Press, paper, $ 25), A release for 2020 could not have been better planned: After all, walking on the longest street in the city is just as good an antidote to Covid-era cabin fever as any other. But it was too cold to venture outside unnecessarily, and besides, the huge terracotta building visible from my couch was my main concern. It turns out that this is Wanamaker’s Department Store Annex, a 1903 Renaissance-style marvel that was originally skybridge connected to an even more wonderful cast-iron department store across the street, the Iron Palace. The backstory encouraged me to actually look and take stock of the graceful arched windows and ridiculously detailed cornices that stretched as far as I could see down Lower Broadway. I’d never noticed them before – just the increasingly closed storefronts on the first floor – and Hennessey’s guide changed that forever.
Lately I’ve turned to the signature joke of podcast duo Greg Young and Tom Meyers to color the rest of the neighborhood for myself and all of Manhattan. In her 2016 book, THE BOWERY BOYS: Adventures in Old New York (Illustrated, 528 pages, Ulysses Press, paper, $ 17.95), The authors’ penchant for the mysterious and macabre can be found in an anecdote about Astor Place, a cobblestone throw by Wanamaker. On May 10, 1849, the square around the former Astor Place Opera House – a large colonnaded building – erupted in deadly violence when a crowd was indicted in protest against the final performance of British actor William Charles Macready in “Macbeth”. who embodied the hauteur of the upper class for the American audience. The opera house was demolished in 1890 and the incident faded from memory. But today’s quiet streets are a reminder that this too will happen.
And so I am waiting. And read.
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