Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village

Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village

Article excerpt

The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village John Strausbaugh (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013)

Among the strange details that emerged after Philip Seymour Hoffman's untimely death was the cost of his monthly rent for the apartment he occupied on Bethune Street, in the West Village, after separating from his partner and their children and leaving the $4.2 million Jane Street condominium they all shared. He paid $10,000 a month for his Greenwich Village apartment. By all accounts, Hoffman matched the Village's eclectic, bohemian feel as a screen and stage actor and as a financial supporter of the Labyrinth Theater, a Bank Street progressive performance space. His rent and mortgage, however, were hardly bohemian, and the details of his real estate possessions illustrate what the Village is today and what it takes to live there. Once a crucible of American culture-from bohemians to Beats to rockers-Greenwich Village is now a high-end real estate enclave, but its history and cultural impact form an invaluable legacy that John Strausbaugh captures effectively in The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village.

Strausbaugh understands what rent means to neighborhoods in New York City. When he first arrived in the city in 1990 as the associate editor of New York Press, an independent, often-irreverent counterweight to the increasingly irrelevant Village Voice, he lived in Greenwich Village, but quickly moved to the East Village, where he found a taste of the old Village life, at least for a short period of time. Strausbaugh was a primary contributor and editor for New York Press from 1990-2002, and wrote for and hosted The New York Times "Weekend Explorer." He knows New York. Like the people he chronicles in The Village, Strausbaugh was attracted to the freedom from conformity the Village represented: "The artists, radicals, and misfits drawn to the Village for all those years were always a small and transient minority, though a highly visible and vocal one" (xi). The author of Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps and Stoopits, among other books, Strausbaugh clearly regrets the loss of what the old Village embodied. But he does not indulge in nostalgia, for he knows that freedom can lead to self-destruction and that booze, drugs, sex, and corruption are found in the same place as artistic and cultural freedom. "The history of Greenwich Village," he notes, "is littered with the corpses of those who drank themselves to creative ruin or death, overdosed on various drugs . . . or partied themselves into oblivion" (xi). The Village uses 624 pages to tell the Greenwich Village's social and cultural history in lively anecdotal fashion. The book is well researched, entertaining, and encyclopedic in scope, although it displays faults common to a journalistic writing style, especially in the final chapters of the book.

In the early twentieth century, Greenwich Village's attraction was cheap rent, which pulled creative people into what had once been a marshy landscape that indigenous people called Sapokanikan. In 1811, the so-called Randel Plan, named for its chief engineer, presented the grid of east-west streets and north-south avenues that defines modern-day Manhattan. The plan, according to Strausbaugh, served the desires of commercial real estate interests, except for a small slice of the West Side: "One small area on the map bucked the precision-tooled order. Just above Hudson Street on the Hudson flank of the island lay a maze of crooked, angled streets, a small eruption of eccentricity and disorder: the former Bossen Bouwerie, now called Greenwich Village" (8). This odd urban patchwork became a place for immigrants, creative artists, and transients. Greenwich Village, perhaps one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world, would become "the cultural capital of the Western world," particularly flourishing during the first seventy years of the twentieth century. …

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