Village People

John Strausbaugh
The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village
(Ecco, 2013)

If your idea of a good summer book is a hefty, 600-plus-page—but easily readable—tome, The Village is for you. John Strausbaugh, a writer of four previous works of popular nonfiction on the arts, has yeomanly assembled a treasure trove of personality profiles and gossipy tidbits covering the nearly 400-year history of what is broadly identified as Greenwich Village. 

The book is best begun with the index. Thumbing through it, one discovers nearly every popular writer, artist, musician, actor, and social celebrity who ever lived or performed—or stopped by for a drink—in the Village. Pick your favorite character, say Walt Whitman or Bob Dylan, and go to an easily readable Wikipedia-like thumbnail profile.

Linear history, like a free-flowing river, provides the book’s nominal narrative structure. Profiles of countless “beats and bohemians, radicals and rogues” serve as steppingstones through the Village’s evolving transformation from Gotham’s earliest suburb to America’s counterculture incubator to today’s still charming if overpriced neighborhood. 

The book’s structure can be tedious if you’re looking for a plot-driven narrative or thoughtful character revelations (as can the ceaseless name-dropping). More useful, avoid the names you know, as Strausbaugh’s sketches are pretty standard fare. Rather, check out listings for people you’ve never heard of. In cobbling together his huge catchall, Strausbaugh has snared many now all-but-forgotten characters, who, while never becoming cultural notables, added to the Village’s celebrated charm.  

Among the long-lost Villagers rediscovered is William Henry Brown, who, in the 1820s, ran the African Grove, the city’s first black theater. A century later, during the 1910s and ’20s, the Village was home to Earl Lind, aka Ralph Werther and Jennie June, an early transgendered activist who wrote a revealing autobiography. Strausbaugh also profiles Valerie Solanas, author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, an early feminist rant, who got her 15 minutes of fame by shooting Andy Warhol. Gratefully, for these characters and many others, Strausbaugh has done his homework.

The Village’s earliest three centuries get relatively short shrift—only about 50 pages. In addition to sketches of early literary lions like Edgar Allan Poe and Whitman, Strausbaugh recalls the experiences of ordinary Villagers, especially Irish, Italian, and African Americans who called the Village home. “By Manumission Day, July 4, 1827,” he reminds readers, “more than ten thousand free blacks lived in Manhattan and Greenwich Village was home to the largest population of them.” 

The bulk of the book’s narrative deals with the celebrity culture that spanned more than 100 years beginning in the late-19th century and continuing through the late-20th century. This is the era when the Village was the place to be, America’s Left Bank. 

The century is essentially divided between into two broad phases. The first involves the rise of the bohemians from the late-1890s through the Prohibition era. The second involves the maturation of the counterculture during the period following World War II through the 1970s. In both eras, the Village was a magnet drawing the culturally unconventional. The author endlessly details the innumerable parties, poetry readings, art openings, bar fights, political rallies, and love affairs. And they are fun to read; those days are over. Unfortunately, Strausbaugh gives only passing snapshots of the life of all the other, ordinary Villagers, who made the neighborhood home during this period.

Strausbaugh repeatedly acknowledges that at critical historical moments, property interests determined the Village’s fate. Today, N.Y.U. dominates the area, slowly turning what was once an affordable bohemian paradise into a high-priced hipster’s campus. Greenwich Village was once the epicenter of the city’s and nation’s intellectual, artistic, and political creativity; those days are also over. The city’s fiscal collapse in the ’70s combined with the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s decimated the Village. Its slow recovery ended its era as a cultural mecca. The center of creative gravity has moved to more promising—and cheaper—spots, whether that’s the East Village or Brooklyn, Portland or Shanghai.

The Village includes wonderful black-and-white photographs of many of the celebrities profiled. It would have been helpful for readers if the book included some “then” and “now” shots of, for example, the Washington Square Arch or Bleecker Street to show how the Village as a lived environment changed over time. 

More troubling, the book does not include any maps of the Village, so a reader who is unfamiliar with the layout has no way to follow the author’s narrative either over time (as the city changes) or as his story bounces from block to block following his characters as they wander. Yet in today’s world of mobile, searchable, audio-video Internet connectivity, one can pull the missing elements together with little effort.

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker; and regularly contributes to AlterNet, CounterPunch, and the Huffington Post. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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