Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Greenwich Village Musings

My first apartment as an official adult was at 12 Gay Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. Gay Street is a tiny, winding street which runs for only one block between Christopher Street and Waverly Place. Originally a stable alley, it was widened in 1833 and became a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. When I lived there in 1960, it was barely wide enough for a single car. The sound of children roller skating on summer nights echoed against the buildings.

The original occupants of Gay Street were mostly black servants of the wealthy white people on Washington Square. It soon became home to many black musicians, which gave the area an artsy, boho quality. It was a magnet for diverse creative people.

The street runs through the site of a brewery owned by Wouter van Twiller, who succeeded Peter Minuit, the first Governor of New Netherland, in 1633. Federal houses, built between 1826-1833, lined the west side of the street, where I lived. On the east side, the houses were built in 1844-1860, and favored a Greek Revival style.

Around the corner on 6th Ave. was Balducci's open air produce market, from which I stole the occasional peach. There was a heady freedom in being a very young woman, walking around the fabled streets of Greenwich Village and feeling that I owned it, and myself, for the first time. Bob Dylan and other folk singers performed in coffee houses around the area, and the Village Vanguard, The Village Gate and The Blue Note hosted some of the biggest names in jazz on a regular basis. The Beat Generation began here in the 50's with Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, most of whom later migrated to San Francisco, which had a growing Beatnik movement and better weather.

Small and secretive, Gay Street was a natural location for speakeasies during the 20s, including the Pirate's Den at 12 Gay Street. The building was owned by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who kept his mistress, Betty Compton, there. A few years later, Frank Parris built his famous puppet, Howdy Doody, at that address. The house is believed to be haunted by an entity called the Gay Street Phantom.

Ruth McKenney lived next door at 14 Gay Street with her sister Eileen in the 30's, and wrote the book My Sister Eileen, which became a play, a musical and a movie. Eileen died in 1940 in a car accident with her husband, writer Nathanael West, a few days before a stage production of the play was to open. The movie, Carlito's Way, was also filmed here.

Nearby Bedford Street is the site of the city's narrowest house, 8 1/2 feet wide and 42 feet long, built in 1873. Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here between 1923 and 1924. Cary Grant and John Barrymore also lived in the house during its long history. It is currently for sale for $2.7 million and yes, I would buy it. I am small. It would fit me perfectly.

In 1969, I moved to the Village again with my two older children. My youngest had not been born yet. My daughter was in 1st grade at PS 41, and my son, a Montessori Preschool dropout, was my constant companion. We bought puppies to save them from pet store cages, played in Washington Square Park, and walked all over the city together. One day in March of 1970, strolling with both children on W. 11th Street, we heard a deafening noise and watched a house explode a half-block away. As emergency crews swarmed the area, I decided it would be wise to remove my children from the scene in case there was further danger, and we left.

The explosion was caused by the detonation of a bomb being built by a radical group called the Weather Underground, which was intended to be set off that evening at a dance for noncommissioned officers and their dates at the Fort Dix, NJ Army base "to bring the Vietnam war home." Several of the bomb makers were killed in the blast while others escaped. Dustin Hoffman and his first wife, Anne, lived next door and their home also sustained some damage, but they were not hurt.

In 1969 police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street. The patrons resisted and a riot ensued. This first rebellion and accompanying press coverage gave birth to the gay and lesbian movement.

Greenwich Village remains a haven for artists and non-conformists of all stripes, and much as I love my adopted city of San Francisco, I still miss it. They say three is a charm.


the walking man said...

I rarely think of the year I lived in the city. I totally get why you would want to go back, which is why I don't torture myself wit it Susan.

secret agent woman said...

Maybe your screen name should be HeartinNewYork?

Molly said...

But you know what they say.....you can never go back, at least not to the way you remember it. Better to preserve your memories than be disappointed!

Anonymous said...

Thanks,I learned a lot of history with this post.

nick said...

A fascinating history. I've been to NYC twice but never visited Gay Street or Christopher Street. Must do so the next time I'm there. Judging by the dissident Republicans' recent botched bombs, bomb makers are still as incompetent as ever!

la cartonaria said...

I do believe in the spirit of a place. How wonderful to have lived in 12 Gay Place with all that history, all that ambience, all those years of creativity settled into the bricks. Did you see the Phantom?

Anonymous said...

I bet you still miss it. What a place and what a time to have lived there. Susan, I really envy you that experience and I loved reading the account and every namedrop rivited me. Thanks.

Barb said...

You've lived in two of the most vibrant and beautiful cities. When I was in college, we'd take trips to NYC and roam through Greenwich Village. I assume Balducci's is still thriving. Now, my husband and I prefer the West Coast - we visit San Fran every spring.

Lex said...

Go back! I will visit you every other weekend.

mischief said...

Beautiful memories. I love looking around in your life.

TechnoBabe said...

I agree with Barb's comment. Two cities full of history, charm, and something for everyone. This was a fun adventure learning more about your New York days. The first time I took my kids to Greenwich Village they were bug eyed at the people and the architecture.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I didn't know you had lived in NY, and would love to know more.


Maybe so. But then I'd have to write a new song.


I read all of Thomas Wolfe's books as a teen, but was too young to fully get the concept of never being able to go home again. I do now.


It's only fair. I learn so much every time I visit your blog.


Yes, let's all hear it for incompetent bomb makers. You should definitely visit the Village, and Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Soho, oh, my. There I go. It's such a vast and amazing city - every time you turn a corner, you're in a different world.


No, I didn't, unfortunately. I would have welcomed the encounter.


The Village was full of well-known people, many of whom have withstood the passage of time. But they were all just folks once, doing their thing in an exciting place.


I've been on the west coast for a long time, too, and have also lived in many other parts of the country. But now and then, I get nostalgic about NY, especially since I was young there.


Now that sounds like a plan! Let's go.


I'm so glad you could come.


My children and I often passed the Women's House of Detention, which was in the Village, and the inmates would scream obscenities out their barred windows. My daughter never failed to remark, "Oh, look, Mommy. It's the ladies' jail."

I am not Star Jones said...

Bedford & Gay Streets still have the energy & feel of New York City being a place where truly anything can happen.

Thank you for sharing.

PeterAtLarge said...

Great visit to the Village! Thanks,,,

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It's been such a long time. I love your comment -- New York has always been that place for me.


I didn't even scratch the surface, but glad you could come along.

TaraDharma said...

Your stories are compelling -- I love NYC, but have never (to my knowledge) been down those particular roads. What history! Your life, and the life of your children, caught up in that great whirl of history.

I spent a lot of time on Cannery Row in Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck's book. I worked in a theater next to the old building Doc used (right on the water). I love that feel of history all about one. Wonderful!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I love Steinbeck. Places like Cannery Row give me chills because I've read all his books. I love the way he places his fiction in real locales so that they become part of the history of a place.

His hometown of Salinas has nothing that is unrelated to him. Even the antique mall is really a Steinbeck souvenir shop.

Pea said...

What a way to remember. Usually when I miss a place and go to visit it, I realize,'no I don't miss this place I miss those times'. And what a time you must have had. You were in the middle of it all. How scary and exciting at the same time. I have this romanticized version in my mind of that era because it was a time of so much change for the better. And the generation of that time was able to accomplish so much in art, music, social attitudes and law. I wonder if I would have had that same free spirit......

You don't have it bad at all in SF huh? I'd love to come back to California. I'm so full of love for my homestate but the smalltown(er really I mean redneck) mentality is beginning to depress me lately....

Jo said...

When I was growing up in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island, all I wanted to do was to move to New York and live in Greenwich Village. Reading your post, I feel as if I lived there vicariously. When my daughter and I visited New York, that was one of the first places we wanted to see. I could live there in a heartbeat, and I can understand why you would want to go back. Be sure to get a place with a guest room, so I can go to New York and visit you...! :-)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

I've lived in many places where that mentality was prevalent because I like country living and I had a lot of animals, but I definitely don't miss that aspect of it.


The guest room is waiting, anytime you visit.

David said...

I love this kind of writing from you, Susan, when you give us a glimpse into your amazing past, but with the knowledge and the vast wisdom of the present. You are truly a woman of many cities, of many sensibilities, of many lives. You have such a great head for facts, for details, of seeing so much.

There are so many yous I want to read about.

On a limb with Claudia said...

Would you move back? I love your delicate and romantic description, but I can imagine it was a challenging, painful and terrifying time in your life.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Going back someday? I know it would welcome you with open arms.

I'll take your place in SF if you leave it.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...


We are all many different selves. We bring all our years and experiences into our present, and then try to make sense of them.


I doubt I'll move back. I love California, too. And actually, right now is a challenging, painful and terrifying time in my life, which has been taken over by AD. I knew nothing of such diseases then, and for that alone, it was a wonderful, happy time.


Thanks for your kind offer, but I think I'll stay here awhile longer.