Tuesday, March 01, 2011
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.