The West Village is nearly impossible to describe. It has a New York ambiance to it that many people liken to small European streets. With every corner in this section of the village seemingly covered with bistro tables--candle-lit and table-clothed--the West Village is simply unlike any other area of the city. Cafes, bistros, late-1800s brownstones and townhouses, boutiques, cobblestone streets, and nothing over six stories tall--these are the things that epitomize the West Village. It's not cheap. The housing is not always large or pristine. But it may be the best place in New York to spot a celebrity, have a romantic date, or experience New York City in general.
Greenwich Village is located on what was once marshland. In the 16th century, Native Americans referred to it as Sapokanikan ("tobacco field"). The land was cleared in the 1630s and turned into pasture by Dutch settlers, who named their settlement Noortwyck. The English conquered the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1664, and Greenwich Village developed as a hamlet separate from the larger (and fast-growing) Manhattan. It officially became a village in 1712, and was first referred to as Grin'wich in 1713 Common Council records. In 1822, a yellow fever epidemic in New York City encouraged residents to flee to the healthier air of Greenwich Village, and afterwards many stayed.
Greenwich Village is generally known as an important landmark on the map of bohemian culture. The neighborhood is known for its colorful, artistic residents and the alternative culture they propagate. Due in part to the progressive attitudes of many of its residents, the Village has traditionally been a focal point of new movements and ideas, whether political, artistic, or cultural. This tradition as an enclave of avant-garde and alternative culture was established by the beginning of the 20th century, when small presses, art galleries, and experimental theater thrived.
During the golden age of bohemianism, Greenwich Village became famous for such eccentrics as Joe Gould (profiled at length by Joseph Mitchell) and Maxwell Bodenheim, as well as greats on the order of Eugene O'Neill. Political rebellion also made its home here, whether serious (John Reed) or frivolous (Marcel Duchamp and friends set off balloons from atop Washington Square arch, proclaiming the founding of "The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village").
The Village again became important to the bohemian scene during the 1950s, when the Beat Generation focused their energies here. Fleeing from what they saw as oppressive social conformity, a loose collection of writers, poets, artists, and students (later known as the Beats) moved to Greenwich Village, in many ways creating the East Coast predecessor to the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene of the next decade. The Village (and the rest of New York City) would later play central roles in the writings of, among others, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Dylan Thomas, who collapsed while drinking at the White Horse Tavern on November 9, 1953.
Greenwich Village played a major role in the development of the 1960s folk music scene. Three of the four members of The Mamas and the Papas met here. Village resident Bob Dylan was one of the foremost popular songwriters in the country, and often developments in New York City would influence the simultaneously occurring folk rock movement in San Francisco, and vice versa. Dozens of other cultural and popular icons got their start in the Village's nightclub, theater, and coffeehouse scene during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, notably Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs. The Greenwich Village of the 1950s and 1960s was at the center of Jane Jacobs's book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which defended it and similar communities, while critiquing common urban renewal policies of the time.
Greenwich Village was also home to one of the many safe houses used by the radical anti-war movement known as the Weather Underground. On March 6, 1970, however, their safehouse was destroyed when a bomb they were constructing was accidentally detonated, costing three Weathermen (Ted Gold, Terry Robbins, and Diana Oughton) their lives.
In recent days, the Village has maintained its role as a center for movements that have challenged the wider American culture: for example, its role in the gay liberation movement. It contains Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn, important landmarks, as well as the world's oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, Oscar Wilde Bookshop, founded in 1967.
West Village Buildings