Greenwich Village Neighborhood Primer

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See Greenwich Village through a new lens, as Gesso gives you an exclusive first look at our neighborhood primers in New York City.

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How much do you know about New York City’s Greenwich Village? Part of Gesso’s city guides, the Greenwich Village Neighborhood Primer is one of many neighborhood primers that we plan to unveil. Our goal is to provide you with city guides that enable more meaningful explorations of the world and enhance our experiences, not detract from them. Whether you’re a local resident or someone living across the globe with a bit of wanderlust, we’ve put together this neighborhood primer to help you see this part of Manhattan in a whole new light.   


When most people think of Greenwich Village, the first image that comes to mind is usually the iconic arch in Washington Square Park built between 1890 and 1892 and designed by architect Stanford White. From ghost stories to a symbol of Bohemia, the Washington Square Arch has quite the history.

 

In 1917, a group called the “Arch Conspirators” had a picnic, but it wasn’t an ordinary picnic with a bunch of students as you might see today. Members of this group included creatives such as poet Gertrude Drick and group leader, French artist Marcel Duchamp. This small group of artists made the arch their home, using its internal staircase to get to the top of the structure. They brought tea and blankets, indulged in the arch’s views of the city, and conversed about various creative and intellectual topics that crossed their minds. They declared the area the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” This title was a testament to the groups of open-minded, imaginative, and revolutionary individuals and communities that would make Greenwich Village their home for years to come.

 

But there’s more to the Village than its iconic arch. In 1911, one of New York City’s deadliest workplace disasters occurred here. On the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, one hundred and forty six workers were killed by a catastrophic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Corruption in the garment industry prevented proper safety measures from being followed and even established in the first place. The workers, mostly immigrant women, had few options other than burning alive or jumping off the building in an attempt to stay alive.     

 

Despite this tragedy and the sentiments of World War I that followed in the years after, Greenwich Village continued to build its reputation during the 1900s as a type of Bohemia for free-spirited, nonconformists. Those who wished to push the boundaries of conventional thinking brought attention to national issues. For instance, the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised a flag with the words “a black man was lynched yesterday” in order to raise awareness about oppression, racism, and violence that the black community was experiencing. The Village itself mimicked the rebellious nature and lack of conformity that was widespread among its residents and visitors. The layout of its streets refused to follow the standard Manhattan grid.  

By the 1930s and into the 1940s, Greenwich Village solidified its reputation as an artistic hub, welcoming artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, James Baldwin, and Marsha P. Johnson. Institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its doors, introducing more artists like Djuna Barnes and Edna St. Vincent Millay to the flourishing creative scene. The 1960s brought in relatively unknown singers who later became legends like Bob Dylan, who tested out songs on small audiences at Cafe Wha?, practically singing for free. During this time, Greenwich Village was not only becoming a welcoming place for artists but also beginning to form a strong LGBTQ community. 

 

The strong presence of the LGBTQ community is associated with some of Greenwich Village’s most notorious rebellions: the Stonewall riots. Conflict between the police force and members of the Stonewall Inn’s queer patrons resulted in what some consider the inception of the LGBTQ rights movement. The Stonewall Inn still exists today as a fully functioning bar, a place “where pride lives,” as its website says. In fact, in 2016 President Barack Obama declared that this site where the riots began will be recognized in history as a national monument in honor of its contributions to LGBTQ rights. After the Stonewall Riots, Greenwich Village in the 1970s felt the effects of the Vietnam War, as protests took place. By the 1980s, activists responded to the AIDS crisis spreading through New York City. Rebellions were a core part of the Village’s rich history.   

 

Today, whether you’re listening to musicians in Washington Square Park, passing by cafes and restaurants on MacDougal Street, or visiting the legendary Blue Note Jazz Club, Greenwich Village’s history can always be felt. 

 

Listen to Gesso’s Greenwich Village Neighborhood Primer for more insights on this Manhattan neighborhood and be sure to subscribe to Gesso Media podcasts for future releases. If you enjoyed this neighborhood primer about Greenwich Village, download the Gesso Experiences app for more stories and snippets about interesting spots in the area such as the Stonewall National Monument, the Hotel Albert, and the Edward Hopper Studio. 

TRANSCRIPT

On the frigid winter evening of January 23, 1917, eddies of snow whirled to the ground, blanketing Greenwich Village. Washington Square Park, perhaps the neighborhood’s most iconic gathering-point, must have looked quite peaceful under that dimming sky. 

 

<SFX: snowfall music> 

 

The park’s Arch, grand and marbled, loomed over Greenwich Village like a stately Roman giant as the ground below turned white with snowfall. Less than forty years prior it had been constructed. Now, it regarded the Village like a great and austere protector. The village regarded it back. 

 

What a bystander wouldn’t have seen when looking at the Arch this snowy evening was a huddled group of artists, shrouded in blankets and winter wear, secretively hurrying up the Arch’s interior staircase to get to its very top. 

 

<SFX: group giggling, shushing> 

 

Six people had broken into the Arch through a door someone had left unlocked. As a result of this negligence, they were going to throw an illicit party of sorts.

 

<SFX: music change -- festive music> 

 

This group called themselves the “Arch Conspirators,” and they’d come to colonize the structure’s roof overnight. The best-known of the group was the French artist Marcel Duchamp, but they were all deeply creative -- three actors, two painters, and a poet.

 

They’d brought tea, blankets, cap guns, lanterns, and conversation, and spent the evening together looking out over the village. They watched snow gather, shared ideas by candlelight, and made merry til dawn. At one point, they released a number of helium balloons into the sprinkling sky. 

 

<SFX: music, cap guns, laughter, something to indicate balloons?> 

 

The precise details of the night are shrouded in years of history, but we know that before dawn broke the poet -- a woman by the name of Gertrude Drick -- read a proclamation. It was a declaration of independence, pronouncing the area the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” 

 

Despite the likely tongue-in-cheek nature of her declaration, it held some truth.  Greenwich Village would over the next hundred years produce some of the most independent, revolutionary thinkers and communities of the time. 

 

This particular night’s escapade only involved a small group of people, of course, but it was representative of all that was to come: a group of creatives hell-bent on encouraging free-mindedness through joyful and subversive art, community, and rebellion. 

 

Of course, Washington Square Park was not always a place of such raucous joy. Just six years earlier, in 1911, the nearby Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was host to a devastating, tragic fire.

 

<SFX: Fire sound> 

 

It viciously claimed the lives of one hundred and forty six workers, almost all underpaid immigrant women, and sparked a nationwide conversation about factory conditions and worker’s rights which continues to this day. 

 

Despite the fire, despite World War I raging in the nineteen-teens, the 1900s had arrived vibrantly into the village, with bells and whistles and covert rooftop parties. At the time the Arch Conspirators convened, people were starting to call Greenwich Village a sort of Bohemia -- a place where oddballs, freaks, and free spirits congregated to create edgy, boundary-pushing art, literature, theatre, and music on shoestring budgets. 

 

This, of course, had flowed over from Paris -- home of Les Miserables, a bohemia of yore appropriated in part from Roma culture. 

 

But New York was where the phrase “starving artist” began to take on new meaning, for better or worse. Critics believed some of these Greenwich Village bohemians were adopting a poor artistic lifestyle, despite having secret bourgeoise backgrounds. 

 

[SFX: Paris-esque music under all of this.] 

 

Perhaps this is why someone like Marcel Duchamp could stay joyful in the face of wars and tragedies -- he and his peers may have been disconnected from the true poverty that was being experienced in the Village at the time, instead playing the character of the carefree artist. 

 

But those lines were blurred. We don’t know how self-aware the Arch Conspirators were, if they were embodying characters, or truly immersed, or somewhere in between. 

 

<SFX: music change> 

 

Regardless of its origins, unorthodoxy reigned in the 1900s in Greenwich Village. It was bursting with venues -- coffee shops, bars, restaurants, churches, houses -- each full of a different sort of devilry or revelry. Perhaps the village’s cultural unconventionality was rooted in its physical unconventionality: it was (and remains) one of the few places in Manhattan which does not conform to a gridded street layout. 

 

In the 30s and 40s, the Village became even more renowned as a hub of art, a place where painters and writers of all genders lived and worked -- among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, James Baldwin, and Marsha P. Johnson. 

 

The Whitney Museum opened in this era, and later ushered in names like Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and more. Beatniks like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs arrived in the 1950s. In the sixties came Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other folk and Americana greats -- as well as a robust LGBTQ community, which was starting to form.

 

<SFX: Folksy music> 

 

As far as the Village’s rebellious streak, it hosted a revolutionary incident nearly every decade of the 20th century. In the late 1930s, for example, the NAACP flew a stark, arresting flag from its headquarters, in protest of the racist violence happening across the country. The flag, which had stark white words emblazoned on a pitch black cloth, read “A BLACK MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” It flew for two years before the building’s owners threatened to evict the organization if they did not remove it.

 

No history of the village would be complete, of course, without one of the city’s most well-known rebellions: in 1969, a riot broke out at the Stonewall Inn, spurred by police brutality against the inn’s queer patrons. The riot is well-chronicled as the inciting incident of the LGBTQ rights movement. Today, the Stonewall Inn still operates as a fully functioning bar. 

 

<SFX: Bar sounds> 

 

Afterwards, in the 70’s, the village hosted Vietnam War protests, and then in the 80s it became the epicenter of activist response as the AIDS crisis tore through New York City. Rebellion and revolution were Greenwich Village’s bread and butter.

 

Of course, Bohemia could only last for so long. Like many neighborhoods in the city, the Village suffered from skyrocketing rent. Today, the area’s apartments are far out of the price range of most starving artists. But Greenwich Village’s rich history remains.

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