When I was a kid in the 1970s growing up in Brooklyn, making the trek to Greenwich Village was as close as you could get to a trip down the rabbit hole. I knew vaguely about its history, but it wasn’t something folks talked about proudly, not the way they spoke about other parts of the city. The Village was still steeped in a fog of the subversive; tinges of shame and danger clung to its edges — all of which only deepened its element of mystery, cool and otherworldliness.
I was thrilled when I learned that John Strausbaugh, who has written brilliantly about New York City culture and history for more than 25 years, had turned his attention to the Village in a new book, “The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues.” The former editor of New York Press, Strausbaugh was the author and host of The New York Times’ “Weekend Explorer,” a series of articles, videos and podcasts on New York City history, and there is no one better equipped to escort a reader into the layers of stories — known and unknown, notorious and inspirational — that the Village comprises.
Laura Albert: Let’s start with obvious questions: What inspired you to take on this project, and how long did it take?
John Strausbaugh: The actual writing of the book took about two years, but I’d been researching, writing about and participating in Downtown Manhattan culture for a very long time before that. I was thinking about writing a history of all the amazing art and culture made below 14th Street — in the Village, the East Village, on the Lower East Side, in SoHo — when Dan Halpern, the publisher of Ecco, wisely suggested focusing solely on the Village. I want to do the Lower East Side/East Village next.
Why are so many Jews associated with the Village?
In the early 20th century, we associated Jewish artists, intellectuals and political radicals mostly with the Lower East Side, where so many immigrants came to live. But there was a lot of cross-pollinating between there and Greenwich Village. So for instance, Emma Goldman, the hugely important anarchist spokesperson, lived on the East Side but spent a lot of time in the Village, meeting up with other radicals like the [Industrial Workers of the World] leaders “Big Bill” Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. And when Villagers started the Provincetown Playhouse in the 1910s, a lot of their inspiration came from the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue. From, say, the 1930s on, you find a number of really significant Jewish cultural figures living and working in the Village: the Partisan Review’s Philip Rahv and William Phillips, Delmore Schwartz, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Tuli Kupferberg, Maya Deren and many others. They were drawn there for the same reason all the other intellectuals and artists were: The Village was a magnet and haven for creative and radical people when they were mostly lonely outcasts in the rest of America.
What aspect of your research was the most difficult for you?
The hardest thing about the research — and this is true of all New York City history — is sifting through all the different versions, legends, exaggerations, myths and misinformation, trying to verify the facts. The history is so deep and layered and fragmented that sometimes you just have to go with your gut about what sounds right. It’s true not only of the longer-range history, but of the more recent, because there are so many eye witnesses you can interview, and they all have their own versions and perspectives.