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The Village

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.

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Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820