It’s hard to stay away from Greenwich Village. Well for one thing, I’m paid to be around here at least three days a week, babysitting for some pretty awesome six year olds. I met them for lunch at the new Grand Sichuan on Seventh Avenue South the other day (yeah, they know what’s good – they’re city kids). But that’s besides the point really; I’d come by this neighborhood regardless. I’d come by this neighborhood for free. I can’t think of an area that pays higher dividends for exploration. When Europeans tell me that they like New York, but don’t find it very pretty, I tell them to come here, especially if their hotel’s in Midtown. Now does it compare with Paris? Probably not, though I can’t say, I’ve never been there. London? Maybe. I know it doesn’t look like Rome.
But it’s pretty, that’s for sure. It’s been a residential urban community since the 1820s, and it’s stayed a residential urban community to this day, so you get a melange of styles and developmental trends covering the bases between then and now. The earlier ones tend to set the tone for me (but that’s no surprise). The Village was already heavily built up by the 1850s and so it lacks the uniform brownstone look you’ll find in some other neighborhoods further north, or in Brooklyn. Instead you get a lot of modest Federal and Greek Revival buildings, many under three stories tall. They’re so quiet looking and cozy that it hurts, especially when I consider that fifty years ago the whole area was still known for its cheap rents. You might have heard about it – how the Village was the Bohemian center of the United States for a little while. You can kind of take your pick of famous artistic types that spent some time here.
Myself, I’ll pick Dylan, comma, Bob (of course!). He lived in a studio apartment at 161 West 4th Street, above Bruno’s Spaghetti Shop (long gone), from December of 1961 until some time in ‘64. He shared the place for awhile with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo – the rent was $60 a month, which in 2009 dollars would be about $420. Do you know how much you’d have to work to split a $420 rent? The answer is: not much! The location put him right down the block from the various folk venues lining West 4th and MacDougal Street. He shot the cover for his “Freewheelin’ Album”, with Suze, walking down Jones Street right nearby. Both Jones and Cornelia Streets are the rare exceptions in Manhattan, each running just one block long, between West 4th and Bleecker Street. You wouldn’t guess that the bustle of Sixth and Seventh Avenues were right around the corner.
Although that bustle wasn’t always there. Seventh Avenue used to begin at Greenwich Avenue, a few blocks below 14th Street. It wasn’t extended south until 1917 with the creation of the west side IRT subway line, plowing through and over the existing Village streets. Sixth Avenue followed the same pattern: originally it began right above Bleecker Street. In 1926 it was extended all the way below Canal, in part to aid the construction of the Eighth Avenue IND subway line, in part to alleviate traffic coming out of the newly opened Holland Tunnel. Both avenue extensions displaced a lot of people, and tore up some of the removed, village feeling of the Village.
But hey, you still can find it in bucketfuls today. And I suppose the neighborhood has always been a compromise of sorts between its own desires and the larger city’s. Today West 4th Street crosses West 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets. Any of those intersections can be held up as an example of the separate character of the Village, and its confusing geography – where else in Manhattan do numbered streets intersect each other? But all of those streets existed before the grid (or a semblance of it) was placed on top of them. West 4th Street was originally called Asylum Street after the Orphan Asylum Society, which stood on Asylum and Bank Street. 10th Street was Amos Street, 11th Street was Hammond Street, and 12th Street was Troy. Those all happened to be the streets that lined up with the grid east of Sixth Avenue, and so eventually their names were changed. Should I mention that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, in Hibbing Minnesota, before we went on to change his name also? Maybe he got the inspiration from Hibbing’s namesake, Frank Hibbing, who was himself born in Germany as Frans Dietrich Von Ahlen. Or yeah sure, maybe he took it from Dylan Thomas, who ten years earlier had drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern down the street from W. 4th and Cornelia. It does have a nice ring to it; I can see the appeal. I mean, I think if I was gonna change my name I’d go with Christopher Bob Dylan.
(Originally posted Nov. 6th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)