Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

Was a beloved book written on Macdougal Street?

August 30, 2014

Macdougal Street in the West Village casts a huge literary shadow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis drank and ate at Polly’s and the Minetta Tavern. Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara hung out at the San Remo and the Kettle of Fish.

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And around the corner, Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven while living at 85 West Third Street in the mid-1840s.

But there’s another literary claim to fame on Macdougal Street. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott reportedly wrote part of Little Women from her uncle’s double-wide red townhouse at numbers 130-132.

Louisamayalcott“In 1868, Louisa May Alcott sat at her desk before the second story window in her uncle’s house on MacDougal Street and penned the final paragraph of Little Women, states this New York University web page, by way of City Guide NY. (NYU owns the house now.)

The  joined houses at 130 and 132 MacDougal Street had been built in 1852 and purchased by Alcott’s uncle. Alcott remained in her uncle’s house until 1870.”

Despite what NYU says, there’s some dispute over whether Alcott wrote any of her story about the March family here.

Alcott reportedly wrote the novel at her family’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Louisamayalcottb&wAn 1880 New York Times article on Alcott, by that time nationally famous, states that she wrote the novel in Boston.

“Most of her work has been done here; the first part of Little Women was written at the South End, and the second part in the Bellevue Hotel, on Beacon-Street, her favorite quarters. . . .”

LittlewomencoverAnd  in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, Cheever references the “manufactured” fact that Alcott penned part of the book here.

“Even the amazing NYU archivists have only been able to find references to the fact that Alcott wrote Little Women on MacDougal Street, nothing about how that fact came to be manufactured.”

A treetop view of Washington Square Park

August 11, 2014

Judging by the automobiles entering the park near the Washington Arch, this looks like an early 1920s view of Washington Square.

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So much is different from the park today though: no playground, no fences, no dog run. Just small-scale, landscaped walkways, an unglamorous fountain, and a mysterious little building in the center that could be a comfort station.

The back of the card tells of romance in the park. “Here is one of our little parks, so you can see it is not all business down here,” the presumably male writer says.

“I have often sat in this park with a girl quite a few nights. Not lately though.”

What a 19th century manhole cover has to say

July 21, 2014

New York sidewalks and streets are a treasure of old manhole covers. Some are utilitarian, others decorative, but most are emblazoned with the name of the ironworks where they were made.

Dempseymanholecover5th

But this one, on the sidewalk on 11th Street east of Fifth Avenue, is more like a cast-iron advertisement for the M. J. Dempsey Foundry, located on West 55th Street.

Dempsey made furnace grates, coal hole covers, boiler castings, and dumping grates. It’s a small reminder of the great infrastructure advances (steam heat, coal delivery, furnaces) that helped make the city an manufacturing and industrial powerhouse.

A Village poet and the hospital she’s named for

July 17, 2014

Ednastvincentmillay1Edna St. Vincent Millay is an emblem of 1920s Greenwich Village.

Bohemian, free-love advocate, and a writer of passionate, sometimes cynical lyrical poetry, Millay lived in various places in the Village beginning in 1917, most famously at 75 1/2 Bedford Street.

Considering how connected she is to the Village, it’s still surprising to learn that Millay, born and raised in Maine, was actually named after another Greenwich Village icon: St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Giving her the middle name St. Vincent was a way to honor the hospital that saved her uncle’s life just before Millay was born in 1892.

EdnastvincentmillayarchWorking as a stevedore on a ship, he became trapped below deck for days without food or water.

When he was found, he was brought to St. Vincent’s and nursed back to health.

Shortly after Millay was born, her aunt wrote this in a letter to her uncle, “the Vincent is for St. Vincent’s Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother,”  according to Nancy Milford’s wonderful biography of Millay, Savage Beauty.

Millay referenced the city around her in her poems: riding the Staten Island ferry, the “fruit-carts and clam-carts” of MacDougal Street. She died in her upstate home in 1950.

Stvincents1931byroncompany

Founded in 1849 and closed abruptly in 2010, St. Vincent’s (above, in 1931) was bulldozed out of its longtime location at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street over the past year.

Buying produce from Bleecker Street pushcarts

June 30, 2014

Thanks to the bell tower of the Our Lady of Pompeii Church that’s still on the corner at Carmine Street, this soft, muted depiction of vegetable sellers and neighborhood shoppers at Bleecker Street is instantly recognizable.

Beladetirefortbleeckerst

It’s probably the early 1940s. Artist Bela de Tirefort, an Austrian native, painted many scenes of daily life around Washington Square Park and the Flatiron Building from the 1930s through the 1950s.

It’s not clear if this is also Bleecker Street, but the resemblance is strong.

Beladetirefortmarket

“In the 1940s, pushcarts made this street all but impassable,” states the Project for Public Spaces.

“Cart operators were forced by law to move indoors, but the street retained its association with food, and today’s Bleecker Street still contains some of the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, and delicacies to be found in the city.”

Thirty or so years earlier in 1915, Ashcan painter George Luks also took a stab at depicting the shops and crowds in this nighttime view of the opposite corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.

Gorgeous neon signs illuminating the West Village

June 27, 2014

On this warm June evening, some old-school neon eye candy is called for. Neon is at its most enchanting at twilight, isn’t it?

Each of these signs have lit up the sky on the other side of Seventh Avenue South for decades—even if the establishments they advertise are a trendy parody of the bar and restaurants they they once were.

Beatriceinnsign

The Beatrice Inn opened in 1924 on West 12th Street. But it’s trended up these days and is no longer the comfortable if unspectacular neighborhood Italian place it had been. “Old Village ambience” wrote Cue magazine in 1975.

Fedorabarsign

Almost a century old, the Fedora, on West Fourth Street, was also recently revamped from a longtime local gay bar to a cocktails and cutting-edge menu kind of place.

Arthurstavernsign

Arthur’s has been a venue for live music since 1937. The vertical Arthur’s sign is wonderful but doesn’t light up anymore, unfortunately.

Johnspizzeriasign

Infamously known as the no-slices place, John’s has been serving meals (originally on Sullivan Street) since 1929—the year of the stock market crash.

This place is one of the few reminders that Bleecker Street was once a thriving Little Italy neighborhood, not an imitation of one.

 

An incredible map of 1930s Greenwich Village

May 12, 2014

Greenwich Village Stories is a lovely new book from the folks at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

It’s filled with reminiscences from dozens of former and current residents—from artists to activists to politicians—who give their take on the beauty and spirit of the neighborhood.

Tonysargmap1934

It’s an evocative read that also captures how much the Village has changed over the years. Driving that point home is a wonderful map of Greenwich Village circa 1934 by puppeteer and illustrator Tony Sarg that has been reproduced in the book.

While the street grid is the same, the landmarks Sarg depicts with such affection don’t always exist anymore. Jefferson Market prison, the Washington Square Bookshop, the Village Barn, Luchow’s, and Wanamaker’s department store are all long gone.

Various hotels marked on the map are now apartment houses: the Albert, the Brevoort, the Lafayette. New York University, interestingly, barely gets a mention—the main campus in the 1930s was in the Bronx.

A beautiful Village garden on top of a garage

May 5, 2014

WashsquarevillagewikiThe four “superblock” apartment buildings collectively known as Washington Square Village received little love from the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood when they opened in 1959.

But Sasaki Garden, the one-and-a-half acre greenspace designed within the four buildings and on top of the complex’s sublevel parking garage, scored a better reception.

Sasakigarden1

And no wonder, thanks to the walkways and benches that wind around an incredible variety of plants and trees: crabapple trees (and their beautiful blossoms), Japanese maples, dogwoods, maples, even a weeping willow.

Sasakigarden3Designed by Modernist landscape architect Hideo Sasaki, it was and remains still an expansive oasis of quiet and loveliness in the middle of crowded Bleecker and West Third Streets.

The slab-like buildings are like fortresses hiding a treasure within their walls.

You can’t really experience its beauty unless you take a walk through it—which the general public might technically be allowed to do, as no sign says it’s for residents only.

Go now, while the pillowy pink and white blossoms are still out, because Sasaki Garden may not be around much longer.

Sasakigarden2

New York University bought Washington Square Village in the early 1960s; faculty and grad students occupy the apartments.

Yet NYU’s 2031 expansion plan calls for towering new buildings to cut into the garden and disrupt the original design. (The plan is currently on hold thanks to a recent legal decision.)

The 1950s plan for a Washington Square Highway

April 12, 2014

The history of New York City is littered with never-realized proposals: moving sidewalks, a burial ground in Central Park, and these 100-story apartment houses meant for Harlem.

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Another half-baked idea that (luckily) never got off the ground was a plan for a highway running through Washington Square Park, proposed many times through the 1950s by “master builder” Robert Moses.

Washsquareparkplan1940As Parks Commissioner in 1940, Moses originally wanted to build a “double highway” snaking along the side of Washington Square Park (left).

At the time, a narrow roadway let vehicles go south from Fifth Avenue to Washington Square South (above, in 1950).

That double highway was shot down thanks to opposition from local residents, business owners, and NYU officials. But Moses wasn’t giving up so easily.

Washsquare1950splanIn the early 1950s, he proposed bisecting the park with a 48-foot-wide highway connecting Fifth Avenue to West Broadway—which would be widened and illustriously renamed Fifth Avenue South.

Naturally community leaders were outraged. In 1955, plans were submitted for a “depressed, four-lane highway running through the park in an open cut from Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch,” wrote The New York Times.

Washsquare1960s“Mothers and children, New York University students and others who use the park would be able to cross from one half of the park to the other by a foot-bridge thirty-six feet wide.”

Again, opposition was fierce. Jane Jacobs led the fight, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford in her corner.

They were fighting not only the Washington Square Highway plan but another Moses’ idea to raze 14 blocks of prime Greenwich Village real estate and build a series of apartment complexes.

By the end of the decade, Moses retreated. Washington Square Park has been remodeled and revamped, but at least it’s not crisscrossed by a superhighway.

[Photos: the Square in the 1950s and 1960s, New York University Archives]


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