By Charles Christian
In a 1989 interview, Bob Dylan commented that “The worst times of my life were when I tried to find something from the past. Like when I went back to New York for the second time. I didn’t know what to do, everything had changed.” A few years back, I was on a business trip to New York and – having managed to blag myself a storytelling gig at the Cornelia Street Cafe – took advantage of some free time (and some halfway decent weather – my visit fell midway between two blizzards) to spend a Sunday exploring Greenwich Village.
Unlike Dylan, this was my first time in the Village – however a lifetime of reading about the Beats, the folk-revival of the early 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the crime club novels of Kinky Friedman, had left me with an impression of what the Village had been like – and how I hoped it would still be. Armed with a copy of Bill Morgan’s excellent 1997 but already frighteningly out of date guide book The Beat Generation in New York – a walking tour of Jack Kerouac’s city (City Lights Books) I made way down through Times Square, on past the Flat Iron Building and Madison Square Gardens and finally on into the Village, by way of New York University (NYU) and Washington Square. With hindsight, I should have realised what I was letting myself in for when, pausing to take a photo of the Flat Iron Building, I overheard a passer-by say “That’s a really famous building… it was featured in a Spiderman movie.”
There’s an old B&W photgraph taken by Kaoru Sekine (you can find it on the web, I’m not infringing his copyright) showing Allen Ginsberg reading poetry to a crowd in the park in the early-mid 1960s – there are even people sitting up in the trees, listening to him. Bob Dylan gave impromptu performances here when he first arrived in New York. It was also around this time that the police started to get heavy with unauthorised gatherings because ‘folksingers have been bringing too many undesirable elements into the park.’ Undesirable in the context of those times meant teenagers, blacks and beatniks.
And now? When I got there, most of the park was off limits, the scene of a major landscaping, reconstruction and gentrification project – tho apparently the project has been stalled by legal disputes, because the plans involved cutting down some ancient trees. Like there should be trees in a park anyway! The small part of the park that is open is the circle of permanent chess tables on the south side – and a scruffy patch of earth on which New Yorkers take their dogs to shit.
There was nobody playing chess that day – and by the look of the tables, now mainly occupied by sleeping tramps, nobody had played chess there for a long time. In fact New York’s attitude to parks and open spaces in best summed up by this sign. They could have saved themselves some paint by just writing Keep Away – and don’t even think of having any fun.
It used to be said (only in England I should add) the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Perhaps the corollary is revolutions are lost when the Bourgeoise pave over the playgrounds of Bohemia.
Elsewhere? Well it was just like Swindon or Basildon. (Two very boring towns in the UK.) Indifferent buildings converted into nail manicuring and skin tanning boutiques. Just what is it with New Yorker women and their fingernails? I was there on a Sunday afternoon in February – there were dozens of these talon salons – they were all open and they were all packed. True, you can still buy bongs and hash-pipes in Greenwich Village – but they are all of the mass-produced-in-a-factory-in-China-last-month-for-the-New-York-tourist-trade variety and about as authentic as the plastic policemen’s helmets they sell in kiosks in London’s Oxford Street.
Admittedly some places haven’t changed. Here’s a picture of Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo taken in Jones Street, just before it joins 4th Street – positively – on a snowy day in early 1963.
And here’s the same shot taken on a not-quite-so-snowy day in early 2009. Only the cars have changed.
Another place, also apparently cut off from the passage of time, is Patchin Place, where e.e.cummings lived and worked for the better part of 40 years. It even retains (according to another handbook) ‘its 19th century gas street lamp – one of only two in New York City, and the only one that still gives light, though the light is now electric.’ (I know, surely that makes it just another electric street lamp.) It’s also worth noting that when it comes to the current denizens of Patchin Place, artists and writers are now outnumbered by therapists.
The cummings’ apartment was in the cream painted building at the far end of the terrace on the right – it has the US equivalent of a blue heritage plaque on its outside wall now.
In the distance is the tower of the old Jefferson Market Courthouse – a building scheduled for demolition but saved by campaigning conservationists and is now a library. And this, is the tragedy of the place. Having been abandoned by the bourgeoise in the early 20th century, Greenwich Village went into decay and, because of its cheap accommodation, became a bohemian enclave of artists’ studios, musicians’ pads, coffee bars, jazz cafes, folk clubs, poetry scenes and late night dives. But, this creative success carried the seeds of its own destruction as the area’s ‘character’ began to attract back the middle classes. And, they not only set about conserving and gentrifying the area but they also helped push up property prices, forcing out all the artists and musicians who had given the district its character in the first place.
Not content with that, these incomers also started complaining about the few remaining late night spots – demanding they turn the music down, close early and have their licences curtailed so they didn’t disturb decent folk asleep in their beds. CBGBs, the home of punk rock on the corner of Bowery and Bleecker, closed in 2006. And when I visited last time, there were just two ‘original’ poetry/spoken word venues still operating – the Bowery Poetry Club (pretty much opposite where CBGBs used to be) and the Cornelia Street Cafe.
The coffee houses have gone. The clubs have gone. The bookstores have gone. And when I left the Cornelia Street Cafe, just after midnight on a snowy Wednesday morning in early February, the people had also gone – I could have been the only living boy in New York. Business and the returning bourgeoise have squeezed the life out of Greenwich Village, turning it into a sterile shadow of its former glory. Joyce Johnson, the author of the Beat era memoir Minor Characters – and a one time girlfriend of Kerouac – describes the fate of Greenwich Village as condo-ization. The late Suze Rotolo, in her book A Freewheelin’ Time about life with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, commented “Greenwich Village bohemia exists no more. It was the public square of the twentieth century for the outsiders, the mad ones, and the misfits. Today all that remains are the posters, fliers and signs preserved on the walls as a reminder of that bygone era when rents were cheap and New York replaced Paris as the destination for the creative crowd.”
The saddest sight I saw was a mural – correction a ‘bohemorama’ – outside a Morton Williams supermarket.
Describing the painting as being “dedicated to all aspiring dreamers, outcasts, and gypsies drawn to Greenwich Village life” – the accompanying display board goes on to say “You won’t be alone when you sit outdoors lunching on your sushi or salad bar delights. Not with the likes of Thelonius Monk, Jackson Pollock or Edgar Alan Poe poised just a few feet away!” (The whirring sound you can hear is Jack Kerouac spinning in his grave.)
In case you are wondering, this part of the bohemorama depicts, clockwise from the top right: Allen Ginsberg. James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Edward Albee, Edna St Vincent Millay and William S Burroughs.
And the most hopeful sight? The top righthand window of this New York University building on Fifth Avenue just before it enters Washington Square. Fifty years on and students are still displaying the ‘peace’ sign. Still protesting – and still hopeful – after all these years.
And that, to crib the title of one of Bob Dylan’s earlier songs, is the end of Charles Christian’s Talkin’ Greenwich Village Blues.
You can find Charles Christian at www.UrbanFantasist.com, on Amazon and on Twitter at @ChristianUncut