Today I walked with my kids past my first apartment in New York City—on Washington Place, in Greenwich Village. They were mildly interested when I pointed up to the forth floor window. It was soon forgotten as we strolled through Washington Square Park, buzzing with people taking the sun and listening to impromptu music sessions. I didn’t mention anything to them about my daily saunter across this same park on my way home from class at NYU thirty-five years earlier, when I would barely pause to buy “loose joints” from the Rastafarian guys playing soccer right where we were now standing to watch a juggler.
It is safe to say that both Greenwich Village and I have changed since 1980. The city then was just emerging from bankruptcy; there was a palpable edge, a well-earned sense of danger about the place. I was seventeen and wide-eyed, a kid from New Jersey set loose on the mean streets at too young an age.
But those were heady times of discovery. There was a feeling that everything was possible. Greenwich Village was a place to come and start over— invent yourself. “Anything goes,” was the feeling on the narrow, cobblestone streets. I took my first legal drink in the Village. I lost my virginity in the Village. I met Andy Warhol here, and Al Pacino. I came of age below 14th Street.
The Village had long since begun its transition from a bohemian sanctuary to the city’s center of gay life and artist’s haven. It wasn’t surprising to see drag queens roller skating down 5th Avenue, or a petit man wearing a beret sitting before a canvas and easel on a street corner, painting the facades of the brownstones that lined Perry Street. Today, of course, most of the artists have been priced out—gone to Brooklyn (if they can still afford it there) and beyond. The gay culture has migrated north to Chelsea.
The Bleecker Street of my youth is nearly unrecognizable now. No more is leather goods shop where I used to buy belts and bags, along with the old lady behind the counter with the heavily arthritic hands. Gone too is the framing shop where I would stop in to chat with my occasional drinking partner, Tom. Today that entire strip of Bleecker Street beyond 7th Avenue has been transformed into a destination shopping corridor. Elegant window displays for Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford and James Perse line the tree-shaded block.
Just steps away, the Corner Bistro used to be one of my regular haunts, and still is. A quarter century ago The Bistro was what we called “a real dive,” filled with old codgers nursing their bourbon at the well-worn bar. Today, they’re still there, but so too are the hipsters and the tourists—all mingling, drinking, laughing, eating what is perhaps the best “bar burger” in town. Tortilla Flats, the Mexican restaurant is still around too. It used to be an outlier in the far West Village, but now that same corner is right in the heart of things, across the street from the trendy Italian eatery, Barbuto. And of course the meatpacking district, once home to rough trade bars, received its Sex In The City makeover, from which there is no returning.
But nothing in the Village has changed more than the waterfront. Decrepit docks have been reborn as elegant public spaces. Dark deeds used to be preformed undercover of the night beside the water; these days, dogs are walked on a loose chain, bikers zip past, and lovers stroll after the sun sinks beyond the Statue of Liberty.
And so many of the green spaces are now not only green, but filled with explosions of color in the spring. Tiny Abingdon Square was peppered with used hypodermic needles when I lived across the street—today it is overstuffed with tulips. Jefferson Market Garden is a sanctuary just off busy 6th Avenue, beside the High Victorian Gothic library—a neighborhood landmark.
But as much as things change, things remain the same. La Bonbonniere, on lower 8th Avenue, is the greasiest of greasy spoons, and still serves up the best breakfast in town. Iconic jazz clubs like The Village Vanguard still draw a line out on the sidewalk on a weekend night. So does Smalls, a tiny venue down a flight of stairs. And the Blue Note can still pack the house.
New York City is not a town for nostalgia—it drives ever forward. Have things been lost in all the evolution? Of course. Is it a better place to live now? Definitely. But for all its changes, The Village is remains uniquely The Village. I’ve tried living elsewhere—it never stuck.