Bohemian Greenwich Village is my favorite neighborhood in all of Manhattan… and seemingly everyone else’s too. From the architecture, to the hole-in-the-wall cafes, to the history and the fab food, I have spent many days lazing around and taking in The Village’s many sites and smells.
However, this beautiful neighborhood that was once a groovy home to hippies, bohemians, artists, gay rights activists, and political radicals alike is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in all of New York City due to gentrification. Where there were once poets and musicians, there are now millionaire’s and multi-millionaires.
Gentrification in cultural hubs is nothing new, just take my article on San Francisco Beatniks for example. Where there is a neighborhood with beautiful architecture, beautiful people, and beautiful art, the insanely rich will eventually want a piece of it too. However, that’s not to say that some of that old bohemian charm doesn’t still exist in Greenwich Village, because it absolutely does – you just have to know where to go.
A Beginners Guide to 20th Century Bohemian Greenwich Village
An Early Beatnik & Folk Scene Hub
The counter-culture in The Village started in the 19th century and lasted most of the 20th century before real estate prices skyrocketed. In the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the neighborhood was a major hub for the aforementioned budding poets, authors, and musicians. It was a place that they could freely express themselves without the pressures of conformity imposed on them by a still rather conservative society.
Some of my favorite still-standing Bohemian haunts in the village include:
Perched on the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane, enter this infamous (and a little bit touristy) basement club by the MacDougal Street entrance and brace yourself for the heavy dose of vibe that will hit you square in your romantic heart. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Velvet Underground, and Jimi Hendrix all got their start on the stage of Cafe Wha?, and Allen Ginsberg used to sip cocktails there on the regular.
My favorite Cafe Wha? story is Bob Dylan’s straight from the Cafe Wha? History page:
“Just got here from the West,” the gangly 19-year-old told Manny Roth, owner of the Greenwich Village nightclub “Cafe Wha?” “Name’s Bob Dylan. I’d like to do a few songs? Can I?”
Sure, Mr. Roth said; on “hootenanny” nights, as he called them, anybody could sing a song or two, and this was a hootenanny night, a bitterly cold one, Jan. 24, 1961. And so Mr. Dylan took out his guitar and sang a handful of Woody Guthrie songs. The crowd “flipped” in excitement, Mr. Dylan later said.
He had hitchhiked to New York from Minnesota, and after showing up at the Cafe Wha?, he mentioned to Mr. Roth that he had no place to sleep. So Mr. Roth later asked the audience “if anybody has a couch he can crash on” — and somebody did.
My night in Cafe Wha? was an interesting one. Due to the fact that I’m not one to take chances on the things I love, I made a Friday night reservation for my friend Lisa and myself and we settled into a booth that we shared with some other music lovers.
The house band was on the bill for the night and for the first two sets everything went smoothly. We were soaking up the great tunes, great liquor, and great atmosphere. Then, as if a “oh-woe-is-me” switch had been flipped, things went a bit awry. The house band started taking requests from people who only wanted to hear the worst of current pop music, a line started forming down the street filled with rich hipsters, and Lisa and I realized that we had next to zero dollars to pay our bar tab with.
Shhittttt. Credit Card = declined. Pockets = emptied. And so a mad dash to find wi-fi so I could log on to my bank’s website and transfer funds ensued. Never have I felt like a 21st-century struggling bohemian more.
Address: 115 MacDougal St, New York
The White Horse Tavern
Although having opened in the 1880’s, this watering hole on the corner of Hudson and 11th became notable for its patrons who frequented the joint in the 1950’s and 60’s. Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg are just a few who turned to the White Horse as they’re tavern of choice.
Perhaps the most famous story regarding the White Horse Tavern is one about Dylan Thomas:
Thomas moved from Britain to New York City In November 1953, at a time when Dylan’s health was failing and New York’s smog was especially bad. Prior to the move, Dylan had been complaining of respiratory issues and gout, so when he got to New York the air conditions only amplified his breathing troubles. Nevertheless, he was a drinker and he was going to drink whether he could breathe or not.
On November 3rd, Thomas went to the White Horse where he beat his own personal record and downed 18 shots of whiskey at the establishment (of course, that ‘s Thomas’s side of the story; the bartender told a conflicting tale that states Dylan consumed not even half that amount; believe who you will). He subsequently stumbled outside and collapsed on the sidewalk. From there, he was taken to the Hotel Chelsea where he was residing. He died a couple of days later in the hospital.
New York Magazine once called the White Horse Tavern a “nostalgic high temple of the alcoholic artist”.
Address: 567 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014
Located just around the corner from Cafe Wha? at 113 MacDougal Street, the Minetta tavern is steeped in rich literary history. The Minetta opened during prohibition in 1929 as The Black Rabbit and stayed with the name until 1937 when it opened as Minetta Tavern. Early customers included E.E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway.
In the Beat era, the Minetta became regular stomping grounds to the best, brightest, and most violent. There, William S. Burroughs bought out the bar for his friends, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr (who ended up murdering his stalker David Kammerer in Riverside Park) had deep conversations, and Gregory Corso smashed a bottle in another man’s face.
Today, the Minetta is a bit of a pricey joint for non-casual diners… so I just poked my head in the door and pretended I was in a different era.
Sometimes just knowing how cool a place was is all you need.
Address: 113 Macdougal St, New York, NY 10012
Washington Square Park
With the iconic Washington Square Arch leading the way into the park, this is probably one of the most well-known bohemian, beatnik, and hippie hubs in New York City. Washington Square Park was, and continues to be – albeit to a lesser degree -, a hub and meeting place for creative types.
In fact, it was just after WWII that folksingers began congregating in the park, to the chagrin of many of the working-class residents of the area.
In the Spring 1961, things turned to a head when the folksingers began getting denied permits for singing in the park. So, to stand up for themselves and demand their right to sing, around 500 singers, musicians, and supporters gathered in the park and began to sing without permits. Riot police soon arrived, and arrested ten people that day. Tensions persisted, but the beatnik scene had been planted.
For more information on Greenwich’s golden era:
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Directed by the Coen Brothers, this film follows a Greenwich Village folk singer in 1961 as he struggles with music and life. The movie was partially based on Dave Van Ronk (aka “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”), a folk artist in the 60’s who ran with the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Kill Your Darlings (2013) – A film following a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) as he begins school at Columbia University, meets the infamous Lucien Carr (Dane Dehaan), and becomes entangled in the Riverside Park murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) by Carr. As the film progresses, Ginsberg interacts with early incarnations of Beat Poets such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965)
The first track of Dylan’s 5th album Bringing It All Back Home in which he shook the world off its axis and went electric.
Although the video below was filmed in London, the track has many Greenwich Village roots. The title is said to be a homage to Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1958) about the Beats, the highly political and counter-culture filled lyrics represent the zeitgeist of his Village background, and Allen. Fucking. Ginsberg. can be seen in the background chatting it up with Dylan’s road manager, Bob Neuwirth.
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