The English Department’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Committee hosted its annual interdisciplinary conference on May 2, 2019 at LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC). This year’s theme was “Body Politics.” The main co-organizers of this event, Dr. Meghan Fox and Dr. Anita Baksh, along with many more contributors helped in making this day a success. The […]
The G in Greenwich: Once Groovin’, Now Gentrified
Music, riots, protests and… coffee? That is what set the pace for the famed MacDougal Street in the 1960s. Then, a lively, affordable home to artists, writers, and musicians galore—now, an upscale historical relic of brownstones.
Greenwich Village is no stranger to the sound of a guitar or the aroma of freshly brewed beans from the Arabica plant. The two skipped hand-inhand for decades, weaving a tightly knit bond that brought the new world together and drove the eccentric community apart.
Coffee houses in the era of love, like Cafe Wha? at 115 MacDougal Street, would host live daily performances, encouraging artists and supporting those in favor of the Beat Movement to come on in for a taste of what was considered to be the traditional Greenwich Village lifestyle.
Poets, writers, folk singers, and comedians all flocked to the scene of this bohemian stomping ground. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Jimi Hendrix would go on to gettheir names at these coffee shops, bringing down the house with their alluring vocal range and the harmonic strums of a string.
Cafe Wha? wasn’t the only shop grooving and brewing to the beat. There was Cafe Figaro, Cafe Bizarre, and Gaslight Cafe among numerous others that promoted this vastly artistic and musical atmosphere, welcoming patrons of all shapes, sizes, and colors. However, with the ever growing sound of splendor came more people, with more people came more noise, and with more noise came an assortment of longtime MacDougal Street residents and business owners awakened with rage.
In the 1960s, The New York Times journalist, Edith Evans Asbury, known for her reporting of local issues, wrote a series of articles on the controversy surrounding the Greenwich Village coffee houses. In these articles, she enumerates the residents’ continuous pleas for a village cleanup.In a 1963 article,Asbury states that “the anger of those who live on the block arises from the fact that they are kept awake into the early morning hours by the merry makers below, and have to push through them to get to their homes.” She describes these so-called “merry makers” as “immature teenagers looking for trouble, soldiers and sailors on the prowl, interracial couples, panhandlers, motorcyclists, sex deviates, and exhibitionists of various kinds.” Additionally, “underlying the whole controversy is the suspicion voiced by some,” Asbury says, “that local bars, and prejudice against Negroes, are fanning the flames of indignation against the coffee houses.”
During the Sixties, Greenwich Village was known to have been an area filled with individuals predominantly of Italian descent, and amid this particular era was the lingering battle against the racial divide, specifically among blacks and whites. However, amongst Asbury’s archived papers was a letter written by Kenneth Freeman, a historian with the Negro Actors Guild in 1963, that attempts to challenge Asbury’s suspicion that racial prejudice guided much of the opposition to the coffee houses.
Shortly after the publication of Asbury’s article, Freeman wrote a direct letter to Asbury expressing his disagreement, saying that “readers have been given the wrong picture […] of the situation” and that if prejudiced individuals were to blame, “the deplorable conditions that haverecently come about would have flared into catastrophic racial conflicts much before now.” Freeman goes on to explain that large sections of Greenwich Village had once been owned by the black community, and that its current residents [of the 1960s], both black and white, “resent the characters that have made [their] streets a midway,” thus disputing the claims of any racial quarrels.
Despite the allegations, Greenwich Village has been said to have had its fair share of cultural heritage spread throughout its unique streets. Although, contrary to its past cultural fusion, in recent years, the Village’s racial demographics have remained consistently homogeneous. According to a 2010 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, out of Greenwich Village’s 72,025 residents, 57,137 are Caucasian.
John Bowker, an old-time coffee shop regular, disagrees with Freeman’s argument. “There’s no doubt that there was some tension boiling,”Bowker says. “The uppity cafes nearby hated the colorful mob of people, […] if I was walking around with a few gents I met five minutes before, the eyes behind the windows would start rolling in complete disbelief, and then all of a sudden you were the problem, labeled a misfit; another casualty of the [Village] war,” Bowker added.
Mavericks and racial tension may have disturbed the five-block radius of MacDougal Street, but Bowker still reminisces on 1960s Greenwich Village, recalling the decade to be the muse behind “some of the happiest days of [his] life.”
Growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Bowker became a frequent MacDougal Street visitor upuntil the late 80s. “I was in my teens when I started coming around the Village, maybe 1965, and I remember how bent out of shape people got back then,” Bowker says, “but not us—we were there to feel the music—it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, because once you felt that music, there was no room for anger, we were free from hate—some people just refused to let themselves feel anything.”
Now, living with his daughter on the Lower East Side, Bowker still goes into the Village to enjoy a cup of coffee every so often. However, heinsists it just “isn’t the same as it once was.” “I watched them board up nearly every memory I have,” Bowker cried, “the streets were loud with life during my time, but closed-minded simpletons wanted to change the scene, and so they did.”
The coffee houses of the Sixties were anything but your average cup of joe. They were the creative safe havens for refreshingly innovative individuals traveling from near and far for a mouthful of vivacity. But, the cries of the MacDougal Street landowners could not go ignored.
With the Villagers divided and protesters uniting together, the so-called “mess on MacDougal Street” was sworn to be scrubbed clean of its filth. Irate Villagers and City Hall banded together to aid in the process of “operation: clean up MacDougal Street,” as it was termed, and City Hall went on to issue citations for the unlicensed coffee houses of the time. If those cited coffee houses did not shut down immediately, their spirits would gradually vanish over the following years.
Out of the forty plus coffee houses that lined the narrow lanes of Greenwich Village in the 60s, Cafe Wha? is one of the only few that has survived throughout the decades. Others include The Bitter End on Bleecker Street and the 1927 home of the first cappuccino, Caffe Reggio.
These protests and vast changes on the winding roads of Greenwich Village led to a complete expansion of the area, however. The newly residing Villagers of the Sixties era, adamant on keeping their artistic lifestyle, expanded their beloved Village even further, creating what we know today as the West Village and the East Village.
The borders of both the East and West Village are still up for debate today, but for the most part, the West Village is considered to be the “original” Greenwich Village, while the East Village, formerly part of the Lower East Side, was created by and for beatniks and artists aplenty after their coffee house squabble.
Although, the expansion to the East in the 60s prolonged the process of cleaning the streets, the city’s commitment to a complete turnaround was undeniable. Greenwich Village would void itself of its famous coffee houses and go on to become the prey for massive commercialization; neither the East nor the West have been safe from boundless gentrification.
Douglas Pratt, a twenty-year resident of the West Village and frequent Cafe Wha? patron, expressed his love for the atmosphere during its heyday. “It was more lively than anywhere else in the world,” Pratt said. “What I really loved was that there was activity pretty much all night long. You could go for a walk at two in the morning and not be afraid because many of the music venues were open.” Pratt lived in the West Village from 1975 to 1992 and says that even in the 70s, the Village was always bustling. Shortly thereafter, he began to observe the perpetual change.
In Pratt’s early years of living in Greenwich Village, he could recall the decline of small shops on Hudson Street and witnessed their replacement with profit-oriented establishments. “The major thoroughfares have gone horribly commercial with chain stores,” Pratt declared. “Chain stores, like CVS, started to intrude, the funkier shops disappeared […] and it built up as if gentrification had followed me to the neighborhood.” After occupying a studio apartment for roughly two decades, Pratt moved to the suburbs after the birth of his children. “I’d love to move back now, but I could never afford the rent.”
The East Village wasn’t only created for artistic purposes; much of its creation had a lot to do with the rising rental fees, as well. Fifty years ago, the going rate for a studio apartment in Greenwich Village ranged from $75 to $200, the present day equivalent of $1,385. The higher end of those numbers, however, is partly why residents began to push east; they were suddenly unable to afford their $200 bills. Today, the average cost of a studio apartment on the West side of Greenwich Village has skyrocketed to $2,500, a nearly $1,200 jump on top of inflation; and for those dreaming of owning a townhouse, you can snag one of those beauties for $24 million and upward.
Gregg Montalto, a real estate agent for Halstead Property located at 451 West Broadway, informs us that “a 400-square-foot one-bedroom apartment easily goes for $2,800” in the area, and that’s on the low end of the spectrum. He also states that he, too, has seen a drastic change to the Village over the years. Working with Halstead Property since 1991, Montalto has grown familiar with the city’s offerings, but, he says, “If you walk down Bleecker Street, many of the store fronts are vacant, and most have been taken over by bigbox retail stores.” On top of the influx of commercial store fronts, Montalto says nearly all of “the mom-and-pop shops have disappeared.” Greenwich Village is home to some of the oldest buildings in New York, and history tends to come with a hefty price tag; yet, the cost of living in the Village isn’t the only thing that has risen over the years.
New York University (NYU) owns quite a bit of property in the Village. In 1986, on the corner of West Third and MacDougal Street, NYU built what is known today as D’Agostino Hall. In order to construct this enormous fifteen-story student dormitory, many of the existing structures had to be destroyed; Cafe Bizarre, an old coffee house favorite, was one of the unlucky venues. Once a thriving coffee shop where Andy Warhol firstfound The Velvet Underground, 110 West Third Street is now a high-rise residency hall an classroom structure for NYU law students.
A longstanding Greenwich Village staple itself, NYU has become the biggest landowner in New York City, with their desire for expansion still growing. Currently, NYU is in the process of building a massive 23-story student super hub at 181 Mercer Street, a central player in the “NYU 2031” proposal, and the residents of Greenwich Village are not pleased.
The heavily gentrified Village, however, seems to be experiencing a reverse effect from their cupidity: vacant storefronts and newly constructed high-rises dominate the formerly occupied residential properties. Some people are questioning whether the residents are slightly responsible for this transformation.
In an article written for The New York Times in 2018, Allegra Hobbs discusses the empty victory that gentrification has established on the streets of the East Village. In the late 70s, the deserted public school that sat at 605 East Ninth Street had been claimed by locals and turned into an art center, known as the Charas/El Bohio Community Center. When it was auctioned off and sold in 1998 to Gregg Singer, the angry Villagers once again retaliated in protest. Twenty years later, the building sits vacant and, ironically, residents are beginning to feel the property has become an eyesore.
Steven Kurutz, another New York Times reporter, discusses in a 2017 article the rush of high-end fashion retailers that swarmed Bleecker Street in the West Village. Today, however, stands unsightly bare windows with “for sale” signs. Landlords of the vacant storefronts are asking as much as $45,000/month—and despite their vacancies, they’re holding out on prosperous entrepreneurs until somebody comes along to pay them what they’re asking for.
While the Village has surely been welcoming to profitable enterprises and the students of academia, it has been far less kind to its cultural background. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has managed to keep in place some of its age-old admired aesthetic, but with the abandonment of an entire creative era, Greenwich Village has opened its arms to commercialized businesses in an attempt to claim the turf for monetary value.
The greed exhibited in Greenwich Village by angered residents, covetous business owners, hungry landlords, and thriving universities has placed it at the forefront of gentrification. The controversy that accompanied the melodious Village coffee houses forced out the people who created the Village’s unique character, thus ending the once sought after traditional bohemian lifestyle.
The fleeting coffee shops, the endless construction, the intrusion of wealth in a primarily middle class community. This is what remains of a formerly spirited, exceptionally artistic, soulful neighborhood, the somber sounds of a once groovin’ Village beset by gentrification.