It Takes a Village
Bohemia at the bottom of Manhattan.
Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By FRED SIEGEL
Greenwich Village has always been a matter of geography imbricated by doctrine. Exempted from the 1811 grid plan for numbering Manhattan’s roads north of 14th Street that came to define most of the island, Greenwich Village, bordered on its west by the Hudson River, retained a crazy-quilt layout of named streets.
Artist at work, Greenwich Village, ca. 1935
Heterodox in design, over time it attracted a population of Irish and Italian dockworkers and unorthodox thinkers. By the start of the 20th century, said Malcolm Cowley, it was “not only a place” but “a mood, a way of life: Like all Bohemias, it was also a doctrine.”
The interaction of dockworkers and intellectuals in the Village’s lively bars and taverns fermented a quasi-Marxist outlook for some, but even more fundamental was a hostility to the American middle-class way of life.
The Village alternative was defined by a cult of creativity. Strip away the crushing carapace of bourgeois convention—including marriage between the sexes, insisted the bohemians—and human creativity would effloresce.
In the late 1960s, home from graduate school, I was thrilled to be taken to the Lion’s Head Tavern on Christopher Street by my writer friend David Walley, who was editor of the short-lived Jazz and Pop. A famous hangout for writers and journalists from the Village Voice such as Paul Cowan and Jack Newfield and Vic Ziegel, as well as Sidney Zion and Heywood Gould of the New York Post, the tavern crackled with belligerent conversation and no one seemed to notice when the noted folksinger Dave Van Ronk, already in his cups, wobbled his way into a booth. The bearded Van Ronk, who mocked the clean-cut Kingston Trio of the folk revival as “Babbitt Balladeers,” is one of the many figures profiled here. The Village is an enjoyable collection of vignettes about the sometimes-eccentric artists, writers, singers, actors, and wannabes who gave Greenwich Village its character.
One of the writers who makes repeated appearances is the marvelous novelist Dawn Powell, who was at the peak of her powers in the 1950s. She reduced Thomas Wolfe’s mega-novel Of Time and the River to eight lines:
John Strausbaugh, a prolific journalist who, for a time, turned the now-defunct New York Press into a weekly worth reading, is at his best in short sketches and scathing asides, as when he describes Jack Kerouac as “the free spirit who never cut his mother’s apron strings, the prophet of the open road who never learned to drive.” He places the rise of performers and film stars such as Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Bea Arthur, and Bernie Schwartz (Tony Curtis) in the context of the Village. They were all taught to act at the New School for Social Research by the Brecht collaborator and sometime devotee of the Soviet Union Erwin Piscator.
Strausbaugh also has an eye for forgotten but important Village figures, such as the novelist and professional wrestler Rosalyn Drexler (dubbed “the first Marx sister”) and Moses Asch, eldest son of the Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch. Born in 1905 in Poland, Asch made his first recording of the Bagelman Sisters singing in Yiddish. He went on to found Folkways Records in 1948, where he brought Lead Belly to prominence. Strausbaugh also spends time on the musical polymath David Amram (who is still performing), as well as the rise of The Living Theater and Off- and Off-Off-Broadway.
The commercialization of bohemia was a roaring success. As early as 1917, the Village was so successful in selling itself to tourists that Sinclair Lewis wrote a satire for the Saturday Evening Post entitled “Hobohemia.” Malcolm Cowley, who would go on to edit Kerouac’s On the Road, worried in the 1920s that the Village was dying of success, because so many would-be bohemians were flocking to its streets—one of the many false alarms about the Village’s decline from its peak in the years around World War I. By the mid-1960s, however, the Village’s vitality was genuinely on the wane. Its prominence, said a 1966 guidebook, “as a relatively isolated and exclusive enclave of outsiders had ended”; it was becoming “little more than an offbeat shopping and modern-living center.”
Strausbaugh halfheartedly disagrees, and The Village’s closing pages are a less-than-enlightening attempt to come to grips with the decline of the Village’s verve. Strausbaugh can’t acknowledge it, but the very doctrine that gave birth to the vitality of Greenwich Village was also its undoing. When American middle-class culture was alive and flourishing, flouting convention was a going business. But when convention collapsed in the mid-1960s, the Village was left behind, culturally—new money moving into its ranks aside. Little more than a nostalgic aftermath remained, defined by merchants selling relics of the Village’s original moment.
The Village had long prided itself on anticipating the future. But its successors, such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, live by mining American culture with heavy-handed irony. Brooklyn’s hipsters cannibalize the styles of the past so that their male denizens—the “trustafarians” supported by successful bourgeois parents and/or grandparents—walk about in full mix-and-match costume of porkpie hats and wife-beater T-shirts. The freelance intellectuals and dockworkers who gave Greenwich Village its engaging appeal are now long gone, replaced by the vast bureaucratic apparatus of New York University, which has absorbed wide tracts of the Village, and by young professionals who, in an earlier decade, would have been described, derisively, as Yuppies.
The once-distinct Village hasn’t been absorbed into the Manhattan street grid, but just as the New York Times has turned into a daily edition of the Village Voice, the intellectual life of Greenwich Village, such as it is, is now indistinguishable from the rest of gentrified Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Fred Siegel is scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.