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Exploring NYC's Greenwich Village

The exterior of Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village.

Photo: Whitney Lawson

As dusk falls over Greenwich Village, I’m at Minetta Tavern, sipping a martini with friends who last drank here 61 years ago. “It’s like night and day,” says Lynn Reiser, a handsome painter, as she assesses the old bar where Wall Street guys now order rye whiskey at 35 bucks a shot. “It’s the people. We were all artists then.” Reiser arrived in the Village in the 1940’s, when young artists and writers started coming for the camaraderie, conversation, and cheap rent.

“We met here in 1947,” says Reiser’s husband, graphic artist Marty Hechtman. “I had just come from having my coffee grounds read by a Romanian gypsy who said I’d meet a tall, dark-haired woman and marry her. I did.”

Outside, on MacDougal Street, the crowd swells—locals hurrying home to Sullivan Gardens; students from NYU looking for falafel, crêpes, and pizza; tourists peering at signs that offer body piercings, comedy, and a whiff of the “real” Village. Across Minetta Lane at Café Wha?—where Dylan, Hendrix, and Peter, Paul and Mary played in the sixties—green neon lights claim it as a landmark, cashing in on the nostalgia for the neighborhood when it was still the Great American Bohemia.

“Here at Minetta, a glass of beer was a dime and a big meatball was a quarter,” Hechtman says, looking at pictures on the wall of many of the poets and pugilists who have frequented the tavern since it opened in 1937.

For the best part of a hundred years, Greenwich Village was our Left Bank, a sort of protectorate for artists. When Jackson Pollock announced that his paintings were about expressing his feelings instead of illustrating his surroundings, he not only described Abstract Expressionism but also tagged much of the Village scene. Beat poetry, modern jazz, and experimental theater were nurtured here, often involving radical politics and anarchic acts. This was a state of the seditious and the silly, and to be poor for your work was a badge of honor. Mass production, capitalism, and corporate life were dirty words. You went to “the Village” (no one ever called it anything else) for the culture—and, perhaps, for a pair of those handmade brown leather sandals from Fred Braun, on Eighth Street.

I had those sandals. I was born and raised in Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, and still live only a few blocks south. I was the kind of teenager who sneaked into the Village Vanguard to see Miles Davis, probably clad in black tights and carrying something (visibly) by Camus—in French.

There are still girls in the Village with attitude. You might find them wearing designer black tights at Minetta, where a good beer is now 12 bucks. But the food is terrific. At a booth in the back, Hechtman and Reiser and I tuck into stuffed calamari, some of the best beef in town, and a miraculous Grand Marnier soufflé. But then, Keith McNally, who co-owns the restaurant, has long had perfect pitch for what people want to eat and where. Even if Minetta is on the celebrity (and wannabe) A-list, McNally has still kept the old tavern nearly intact.

Preservation has always been part of the Village ethos. In the fifties and sixties, locals such as the great urban critic Jane Jacobs fought for its narrow streets and low-lying buildings—even as the rest of the city rose in steel and glass, a midcentury modernist wet dream.

“There’s no other place like the Village,” says McNally, a longtime resident. “It still has that essence. I see it in the chess shops on Thompson Street, where the old Village guys play. It’s in the number of ways you can walk from point A to point B. I still get lost.”

It’s that essence that i go looking for as I set out to rediscover Greenwich Village. When people think of the Village, they often think downtown. But this is not about the East Village, or SoHo. (Those came later, as artists and musicians went looking for bigger, cheaper space.) With the Hudson River on the west, Broadway to the east, and 14th and Houston as its northern and southern borders, the boundaries of Greenwich Village are geographically specific. It’s only about a square mile, but it’s dense with history.

At its heart is Washington Square Park, where I witness a little girl splashing in the fountain; a guy with a funky upright piano on wheels pounding out a tinny tune; students sleeping on the grass; and Korean tourists taking snapshots under the Washington Square Arch. New flower beds have been planted, the grass trimmed, and, on a sunny day, the park seems eternal. This is the Greenwich Village town square, its piazza.

Around the close of the 19th century, while the upper crust was observing the proprieties near Washington Square, south of the park Italian immigrants flooded in. They built their own churches—St. Anthony of Padua; St. Joseph’s; Our Lady of Pompei—and taught America to use olive oil.

There is evidence everywhere of that old Italian community: Perazzo Funeral Home, on Bleecker Street; an Italian lady, gray hair freshly coiffed, who always pushes her wire shopping cart up Bleecker to Faicco’s Pork Store on Tuesday afternoons; big Italian men, skin as white as their undershirts, making the city’s best mozzarella every day at Joe’s Dairy; Rocco’s; Caffe Reggio—restaurants and coffeehouses that have been in the Village for nearly a hundred years.

If the heyday of Village culture was the twenties through the sixties, the culinary scene—presided over by James Beard in his West 12th Street town house—really got going around 1975 with the opening of Da Silvano, the first northern Italian restaurant in an area of “red sauce” joints. Silvano Marchetto still dispenses hefty, delicious veal chops while allocating the best tables to pals such as Jack Nicholson.

Greenwich Village usually ate Italian, but today you’ll find a global mix. There is Wallse for modern Austrian dishes, La Ripaille for French bistro fare, Tea & Sympathy for English cuisine—in case you’re craving Yorkshire pudding. And Blue Hill, as elegant and well mannered a restaurant as Henry James could have wished, serves the freshest American food in town, using ingredients from its upstate farm.

There’s also a mini-movement of retro-Village chic under way. The Minetta Tavern and the old Lion pub have been restored to some imagined former time, as has the Waverly Inn.

I was reluctant to go to the Waverly again; it’s run as a kind of semi-club by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, and it’s packed in the evening as people jockey for the “right” tables. You need connections to get in. Finally, I ask a friend in the know to do the business. We discover the Waverly Inn is now open for brunch.

And it’s lovely. And empty. We sit under the low ceilings. Soft light trails in from Bank Street. The waiters are attentive, the smoked fish fine, the scones delicious, and the coffee—regular American coffee—is the best I’ve had in a long time. For the first time since the Waverly Inn reopened five years ago, it feels like the Village. We drift out onto Seventh Avenue, satisfied and slightly drunk, in the mood for some music.

The Village Vanguard, a few blocks up the street, has barely changed in decades. Lorraine Gordon—whose late husband, Max, founded the jazz club in 1935—still reigns, and Ravi Coltrane plays the saxophone, just as his father, John, did 50 years ago. Instead of Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis, you can now hear Bill Charlap and Wynton Marsalis. All that’s missing is the smoke. Still, there are plenty of people imbibing the music, and even a few middle-aged, finger-popping daddy-O’s bobbing their heads to the beat.

West of Seventh Avenue lies the most iconic part of Greenwich Village. Bank, Jane, Christopher—the streets here have names instead of numbers, and run in an improbable pattern (West 10th Street crosses West Fourth Street). You’re literally off the grid. Maybe it’s whimsical, but I like to think of this as a metaphor for the essential Village culture: the refusal to observe convention.

Forget Marc Jacobs and the imperial chains that have colonized Bleecker Street, where there were once funky antiques stores. Head to Three Lives & Co., on 10th Street. If indie bookshops are having a tiny renaissance, then this is ground zero. Just around the corner, off Sheridan Square, there’s the Stonewall Inn, where the 1969 riots gave rise to gay rights. This past summer, when the city legalized same-sex marriage, people gathered there in record numbers to celebrate.

“Why did I choose to live in the Village?” asks Robert Chisholm, who co-owns the Chisholm Larsson Gallery, a vintage poster shop. “It was the epicenter of gay culture. The tables were always turned—abnormal out there is normal and comfortable here. What an eye-opener and a wonderful setting for those accustomed to living a life on the sidelines,” Chisholm says. “I’ve been a Village resident since 1971 and will be one until the end.”

At the fringe of the West Village is the restored riverfront development. A once desolate, abandoned area, it’s now all jogging paths, gardens, playgrounds, and Hudson River views. When I go biking here, I feel I’m in a pretty but alien suburb.

Villagers are much warped by nostalgia. I remember the scary old piers, where artists and urban pioneers once lived, sometimes without running water. Do I regret their passing?

As I ride, I’m comforted by: students talking politics outside the New School; music at (Le) Poisson Rouge, once the Village Gate; C.O. Bigelow, a 19th-century drugstore; the wonderfully restored Jefferson Market Courthouse, now a branch of the New York Public Library. And by passionate moviegoers at IFC Center for screenings of obscure Japanese films, followed by steak and eggs at Morandi or a pear tart from Patisserie Claude.

Somehow, in the streets, in the stones themselves, that old Greenwich Village essence remains.

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