Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas from Greenwich Village

Today is the first day of Christmas, so you should, by rights be looking at a partridge in a pear tree, but I am honoring the season by rerunning my post from last year.  There is sad note to this, though.  Our brilliant and beloved Partners in Crime is no more.  The Greenwich Village mystery bookstore succumbed to the changing neighborhood and book selling milieu last September.  But here it is again In Memorium.  GREAT good wishes for a wonderful 2013!

“City Sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style,
In the air there’s a spirit of Christmas!” 

Our neighborhood is decked out for Christmas. We’ve been around photographing how lovely it looks at this time of year.

In human history, the Village began as a camping site for the Carnarsee Indians. They fished in a local stream they called Manetta or “devil water.” (A lot of devil water is still being served up in local watering holes.)

The Dutch grew tobacco hereabouts in the seventeenth century, and the hamlet remained a northern suburb of New York after the British conquest and through the Revolutionary War. As the city grew up around it with its grid pattern and numbered streets, the Village retained much of its colonial town charm and layout. Folks from outside the neighborhood are still flummoxed by the crooked streets with names like Bleecker and Morton and Grove. And they often wander around, map in hand, disbelieving the fact that West 4th Street intersects with West 10th, West 11th, and West 12th. We even have a street sign marking the corner of Waverly Place and Waverly Place.

As the centuries passed, the character of the village evolved from a quaint and picturesque backwater, to the preferred address of the Golden Age upper classes (who lived around Washington Square with its arch designed by Stanford White), to a magnet for German, Irish, and Italian immigrants, to a shabby bohemian hangout. It became the cradle of the Beat Generation of the 50’s and the capital of New York’s gay community and hippies of all sexual persuasions in the 60’s and 70’s. Remember: “I met a man named Frank Mills on September 1st right here in front of the Waverly…” from “Hair?”

The Village is world famous for many reasons, including its literary history. A remarkable number of writers have lived and worked here. The Wikipedia entry on our neighborhood mentions:

Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Anaïs Nin, Thomas Wolf, Robert Lowell, Horton Foote, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Marianne Moore, Maya Angelou, and Dylan Thomas.

The brilliant Willa Cather is not included, but she was also one ours. She first lived at 82 Washington Place and later at 35 Fifth Avenue. I used to live down the block from her house at 5 Bank Street. I would imagine that many, many others haven’t made the list.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was actually named after our local hospital. While her mother was pregnant for her, her older brother, then twelve years old, became dangerously ill. After the nursing Sisters of St. Vincent’s saved the boy’s life, the grateful mother named her new baby Edna St. Vincent.

Though today, the Village townhouses are often owned by hedge fund managers and big time lawyers, there are still enough rent stabilized apartments and tenement flats to keep the Village’s diversity intact, at least for the nonce. The charm endures thanks to historic architecture, lovely neighborhood pubs and restaurants, and independent bookstores. And writers. Lots and lots of writers. Including yours truly, who wishes you a beautiful Christmas Day.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. I love it when the Greenwich Village is all dressed up for the Holidays. Nice depiction of that part of the city's history, too!!!

  2. As a patrol sergeant assigned to Greenwich Village's 6th Precinct in the 80s, I was often in charge of the police presence in Washington Square Park. What I remember before anything else was The Piano Man. He would wheel his Grand Piano on rollers, his stool on top, under the Great Arch to a central spot near the Fountain, then begin to play. He did both modern and classical. Delightful!... only in the Village!

  3. Thank you, both. Bob, we had such great characters around here in the 70's and 80's. Do you remember Rollarina? Shakespeare? The bearded dwarf with one arm who went around in prom gowns? You never see the hedge fund managers in prom gowns shopping at Mark Jacobs or Ralph Lauren. I liked the old Bleecker Street better!