The wealth of the world has a New York address. It piles up in buildings on land that is laced with gold. And perhaps nowhere is the essence of New York more evident than in Greenwich Village—for it is a microcosm of all that New York has become, and in its story is the story of a great city. The village that became famous to America was formed by migrations from Italy, the west of Ireland, and by Americans calling themselves Bohemians—for into the narrow, crooked streets of Greenwich Village came legions of artists, philosophers, poets, writers, attempted artists and writers, and their followers.
It is one of the few places in the city where the sky has not been stolen by high and indescribably ugly buildings. You can stand on a Greenwich Village street in the early Manhattan morning and watch the night sky lighten and break into streaks of rose that suddenly saturate the heavens, then burst with sunlight that ignites sidewalk and street.
The sun glistens on Washington Square Park's white marble arch. Eighty-six feet (26 meters) high and 30 feet (9 meters) wide, it was built in 1895 for $128,000—then enough to buy Ukraine. The park's glory is tarnished by the fact that its pin oaks, oriental planes, yellow locusts, ashes, and American elms once were used as gallows trees from which men swung for such crimes as burglary, pickpocketing, and having the wrong skin color.
History is alive on every corner and in every alley. At Number 61 Washington Square South, Madame Blanchard's Rooming House was home to Theodore Dreiser, Adelina Patti, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, James Oppenheim, Pierre Matisse, René duBois, and Alan Steeger.
Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay worked at 133 MacDougal Street. John Masefield scrubbed floors in Luke O'Connor's bar on Greenwich Avenue. Humorist O. Henry supposedly gained inspiration for his story "The Last Leaf" from the gate at 59 Grove Street. And Edgar Allan Poe, a reporter for the Broadway Journal, probably wrote some of "The Raven" in the Village.
Most Village residents back then crowded into tenement buildings. They lived with a furious energy—amid clamoring noise and children in doorways. Invariably, in a tiny room, a sick old aunt languished in bed (it was hideous to think of putting her in a nursing home).
Now these buildings are filled with the young and the successful who can pay rents of $3,000 a month. "The woman across the street was 74 and paying $50 a month in rent," says a woman called Big Millie, who lives in the area and has to climb 66 steps to her apartment at 225 Sullivan Street. "She dies. I come back from the funeral and a single woman is moving in. She ends up paying $1,500 for the same matchbox. A few more of these people and we won't have nothin' left in the neighborhood."
It is these rents that affected the Genovese crime family, once the nation's biggest and most lethal Mafia outfit. For it was in the Village, famed for palette and pen, that the mob missed its first heartbeat. The organization flourishes in places where the poor live. In a sense, real estate prices more than the law did in the Mafia—and helped change the character of this part of New York.
Consider the story of mobster Benny Eggs. He was paying $200 a month for his ground-floor clubhouse at 101 Thompson Street. He assumed the landlord was satisfied. The landlord was satisfied—satisfied that one day the cops would catch up with Benny Eggs and the clubhouse would be ready to rent to some scarecrow woman designer from Milan for thousands. Each morning, the landlord thrilled at the headlines in the New York Daily News about Mafia arrests—delight that turned to despair when Benny Eggs was not among them.
Then came the headline he had been dreaming of: BENNY EGGS BUSTED. Soon there was a store on the ground floor of Number 101 that paid $3,500 and sold expensive Italian fashions.
The city is advertised as changing, but in some ways it really has not. One of its greatest addresses—Greenwich Village—is driven by the same fierce energy that coursed through those tenement hallways of old. There are all those people crowded together, brushing against each other, causing the blood to run so fast. Those people are the most powerful people on Earth—in its most powerful city.
JIMMY BRESLIN, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman, has covered New York City for more than 40 years.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.