Recalling the Jews, Radicals and Rogues Who Created Greenwich Village

John Strausbaugh Offers His History of the Village People

Bohemian Rhapsodizer: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott plies his trade in Washington Square in 1955.
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Bohemian Rhapsodizer: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott plies his trade in Washington Square in 1955.

By Laura Albert

Published June 13, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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Any surprises in all that research?

I think the biggest surprise for me was how very many giants of American and world culture lived in the Village. I knew it was a lot, but I didn’t know that pretty much anybody who was anybody in Western Civilization in the 20th century was in the Village at some point. Pretty much every day for two years I was saying, “P.G. Wodehouse lived in the Village?” “Gene Tunney was from the Village?” “Harry Belafonte had a hamburger stand in the Village?” And Kahlil Gibran and Maya Deren and Edgard Varèse and Charlie Parker and Anaïs Nin, and on and on and on.

Wait — Harry Belafonte had a hamburger stand in the Village?

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, before he became a singer, Belafonte pursued a career in acting. He came to the Village and took acting classes at The New School, where fellow students included Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Bea Arthur and Walter Matthau. While struggling to get his career going, he and two black friends put a little money together and opened a tiny, short-lived hamburger stand near Sheridan Square. He’d often stop in at the nearby Village Vanguard, which was more a folk club than a jazz club at the time, and hearing folk and blues acts like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly inspired him to explore the calypso music that soon made him famous.

Why do you think the counterculture and the drug culture took hold in the Village?

My generation, the baby boomers, like to think that we invented the sexual revolution, drug culture and the counterculture in the 1960s. We didn’t. Long before anyone used the terms “counterculture” or “lifestyle,” the Village was widely known as a refuge and haven for artists, bohemians, gays and lesbians, political radicals and social adventurers. In the rest of America, their alternative ideas and lifestyles made them misfits and outcasts; in the Village, they were not only allowed, but encouraged, to act out. So the Village became a hotbed of radical “lifestyles,” from being an epicenter of the women’s movement and later gay liberation to being a place where the sexual revolution was in full swing decades before the 1960s, and a place where people indulged in and experimented with intoxicating substances like alcohol, marijuana, heroin, speed and LSD. So by the 1960s, when the drug culture, counterculture and so-called sexual revolution spread around the country, they already had long histories in Greenwich Village.

Why should folks, especially young folks just discovering the area, care about its history?

Because a lot of American culture came out of the Village, and our culture is an ocean we all swim in, regardless of where we live or how much we think about it from day to day. In transforming itself into an upscale residential and tourist Mecca over the last quarter-century or so, Manhattan ceased to be a place where most creative people can afford to live and work. Young people should know what a gloriously productive culture engine Greenwich Village used to be.


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