Global Greenwich (1) Greenwich Village, NY
I have been thinking for sometime about the other Greenwichs in the world. It’s difficult to count them as I keep finding new ones, but my current estimate is at least 22 – scattered around virtually everywhere but Europe and the Far East. I thought it would be fun to visit them all eventually, even if it may take Some Time.
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be notes for some hideous “humorous” travelogue I’m planning to write. I am not packing a fridge in my luggage or planning to join in local pastimes with grinning natives. Just a little overview of a few of other Greenwich’s we could have lived in.
It seems almost banal to start in Greenwich Village – especially since I’ll wager several of you know it better than I do. But it’s the easiest to get to and I was there anyway. And bloody freezing. I never manage to make it to Manhattan in the spring or fall. It’s always at the bloomin’ extremes of New York temperatures.
The Village is one of the few areas of the island that isn’t on the grid plan, and it’s remarkably easy to get lost. Old streets, some of which are cobbled, twist and turn and come out at places you’re sure you passed ten minutes ago. It has some genuinely old buildings in it, and much of it is defiantly non-New-Yorky.
The area runs from roughly the bit under Union Square (14th St) to a little above the site of the World Trade Center, mainly on the west side. In fact Greenwich Street used to run from the Village right down towards Battery Park until it was dissected by the Twin Towers. In most of the proposals for the site’s rebuilding Greenwich Street is reinstated. The area to the very far West is now the uber-trendy Meat Packing district.
The main part, though, is centred around the few roads surrounding Bleeker, which was once the hippest hip street of all. It’s just about clinging on there, and some of its iconic shops, clubs and cafes remain, albeit more as tourist traps than poets’ haunts. It’s better by night; by day (when I was in a fit state to take photos) there is something a little seedy about it. There’s a fantastic sort-of ‘map’ of Bleeker Street here.
It has always (well – up to about 20 years ago) been a place for outsiders – from the jam-packed immigrant populations of the 19th and early 20th century to the alternative cultures of the 1950s and 60s, it’s been hip for being different. Innovative. From funky nightclubs, new-wave writers and a positive explosion of musicans, actors and designers to the backdrop of the gay rights movement, from ancient Italian delis and cheesemongers to spangly jewellery stores and the world’s first condom shop, Greenwich Village has seen its share of life.
Its heyday as a beatnik haven is long-past. Where once lived artists, creatives and hedonists, now wealthy businesspeople who like to think they have a little bohemian left somewhere in their soul have bought-up and gentrified the area’s cute little backstreets. Think Soho/Hoxton/Spitalfields. The artists are brought back to decorate the swanky apartments and allowed to add local colour to the place as long as they behave themselves.
That’s not to say that it’s a dead area. There’s still plenty going on and if you’re more likely to be sitting next to a rank tourist like me than Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan in Le Figaro, then let’s face it, you’ll be adding to the-problem-with-Greenwich-Village too – it’s a victim of it’s own success. Another stop on the tourist trail.
What I like about it is that they’re actually proud of their history here. Everywhere you look there are plaques and notices telling people what things are or were. We could learn a lesson there…
Washington Square, the Village’s centrepiece, has been in the middle of being tarted-up for as long as I can remember. It’s still mainly chainlinked-off; you still can’t get to the triumphal arch, though one or two little corners remain for those with iron constitutions, thick coats and an inexplicable desire to play boardgames in sub-zero temperatures.
There are one or two must-sees. The Stonewall Inn may look sleepy now…
…but it was one of the most explosive places on the planet in 1969. If you don’t know what happened, read about it here. There’s a park nearby with some scarily lifelike sculptures based on the the history of gay rights in the area.
A couple of things I really enjoyed this visit:
The Strand Bookstore. Yes – I know – a perennial favourite but it’s a must if you’re a secondhand book nut. 18 miles of books, they boast – mostly second hand, but there’s a whole section downstairs of new releases that had been intended as review copies.
Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Bookstore – I went there merely for the name. It sells remainders – worth a browse.
Century 21 Cheapo department store, not really in the Village, but just off Greenwich St so I’m counting it. As you should know by now, The Phantom is a total cheapskate and makes a beeline for this and Syms every time New York turns up in the diary. It’s not a pleasant experience as such – but it’s so damn cheap it’s worth the fight. Avert your eyes if seeing Ground Zero makes you squeamish.
Merchants House Museum This was my find of the trip. Nestled between building sites and high-rise car parks, this early 19th century townhouse, a sort of cross between Dennis Severs house and The Geffrye Museum has been preserved exactly as it was in Victorian times. It’s not quite in Greenwich Villlage either, being across Broadway, but it’s well worth seeking out.
Built for a wealthy merchant in the 1830s, the house was very grand for its day, with all the latest mod cons and fashionable decor. Massive parties and balls were held there while the merchant was still making money. But he was unable to continue the line with a son and as the area went ‘down’ socially (it’s right near Bowery, one of the worst areas in days gone by and still not the best) the house decreased in value. They were stuck there.
Gertrude, the youngest daughter, never married and continued to live in reduced circumstances until her death in 1933, still using the old 1850s stove and a tin bath, having never redecorated. Some farsighted soul decided to preserve it – and it is a fascinating place. Don’t expect to find more than the briefest mention in tourist guidebooks, but do make an effort to see it next time you’re there. And take directions. You could walk right past it.
Sadly my camera’s memory had filled up by the time I visited this fabulous place, and when I took it into Circuit City to buy some more they burst out laughing and got all the other assistants to come see the hilarious ancient camera (it’s five years old.) Sure enough, after visiting numerous other stores, I have discovered my camera is obselete – I couldn’t get memory anywhere, or a replacement for the battery which is really rather pathetic now. I’ve heard of a place in Dartford that sells batteries for obselete cameras and mobile phones (I’ll report back on that one) but a new one might be in order. In the meanwhile I leave you with this – a bijou little place up for sale, just in case you fancy a quick fantasy…