For many visitors, Greenwich Village (or simply “the Village”) is the mostloved neighborhood in New York , despite having lost any radical edge long ago. Its bohemian image endures well enough if you don’t live in the city, and it still sports many attractions that brought people here in the first place: a busy streetlife that lasts later than in many other parts of the city; more restaurants per head than anywhere else; and bars cluttering every corner.
Greenwich Village grew up as a rural retreat from the early and frenetic nucleus of New York City. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1822 it became a refuge from the infected streets Downtown. Refined Federal and Greek Revival townhouses lured some of the city’s highest society names, and later, at the start of World War I, the Village proved fertile ground for struggling artists and intellectuals, who were attracted to the area’s cheap rents and growing community of free-thinking residents. During Prohibition (1920–1933), speakeasies were more prolific and accessible here than anywhere else in the city, and the rebellious fervor that permeated the Village then extended beyond the Twenties and Thirties. It was here that progressive New Yorkers gave birth to countless small magazines, unorthodox “happenings,” and bacchanalian parties that were promoted as “pagan
romps,” while the neighborhood’s off-broadway theatres, cafés, and literary and folk clubs came to define Village life.
The natural heart of the Village, Washington Square Park, is not exactly elegant, though it does retain its northern edging of redbrick row houses – the “solid, honorable dwellings” of Henry James’s novel Washington Square – and Stanford White’s imposing Triumphal Arch, built in 1892 to commemorate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration. The park is also the heart of the truly urban campus of New York University. As soon as the weather gets warm, the park becomes a sports field, performance space, chess tournament, protest site, and social club, feverish with life as street entertainers strum, skateboards flip, and the pulsing bass of hip-hop resounds through the whispered offers of the few surviving dope peddlers (who are just as likely to be undercover cops as dealers). From the bottom of the park, follow MacDougal Street south and you hit Bleecker Street – the Village’s main drag, packed with shops, bars, people, and restaurants. This junction is also the area’s best-known meeting place, a vibrant corner whose European-style sidewalk cafés have been turned from the literary hangouts of Modernist times to often overpriced tourist draws – though they’re still fun for a spot of people-watching.
Right onto bleecker, then right again (north) on Sixth Avenue, walk until you see the unmistakable clock tower of the beautiful nineteenth-century Jefferson Market Courthouse. This imposing High Victorian-style edifice first served as an indoor market, but later went on to be a firehouse, a jail, and finally a women’s detention center before enjoying its current incarnation as a public library. West of here, in the brownstone-lined side streets off Seventh Avenue, such as bedford and Grove, you’ll glimpse one of the city’s most desirable living areas. Nearby, Christopher Street joins Seventh at Sheridan Square, home of the Stonewall Inn’s gay bar where, in 1969, a police raid precipitated a siege that lasted the best part of an hour. If not a victory for gay rights, it was the first time that gay men had stood up to the police en masse, and as such represents a turning point in the struggle for equal rights, remembered by the Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender March (often just referred to as the Gay Pride Parade). Typically held on the last Sunday in June, the parade, which is arguably the city’s most exciting, and certainly its most colorful, begins at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, and ends among the snarl of streets around Sheridan Square.