Bedford & Grove Streets

Gay Street

Anything Can Happen in Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village (fondly called "the Village" by New Yorkers) has been described as "how the world should be" or "what you dream the world should be."  The Village has an international reputation of being a community of bohemians, an unconventional place of tolerance, diversity, progressive thinking, and a home to artists and writers.  It's a neighborhood of non-conformists where "anything goes" with a history of welcoming minority groups, artists, blacks, and LGBTQ people.  The Village has been immortalized as a Bohemian spot of the avant-garde in American literature, books and paintings.  Expect almost anything in New York City but especially in the Village.  "Life is gay, life is sweet, interesting people on Christopher Street" heralds the opening number of the 1953 Broadway musical, Wonderful Town.

Until the late 1950’s, the shipping industry played an important role in Village life.  Ships and ferries docked at the Christopher Street pier and taverns and bars for sailors and dockworkers lined the street.  At one time, a male brothel was operated by the FBI on MacDougal Street with the purpose of obtaining shipping information from sailors from other countries.  “In port for four to twelve hours a day, sailors patronized the street’s speakeasies, pool rooms, cafes and boarding houses,” according to Rick Beard and Leslie Cohen Berlowitz in Greenwich Village Culture and CountercultureSome of those bars later became gay bars.    

The Village was a separate rural area and a marshland known as Sapokanikan by the Lenape tribe of indigenous people of the island.  The tribe fished and camped at the trout stream Minetta Brook (now the Village street known as Minetta Lane).   A two acre tobacco plantation named “Bossen Bouwery” or “Farm in the Woods” was built in the Village in 1629 by Wouter Van Twiller.   From the years 1865 to 1868, Christopher Street was the “central oyster market ” of Manhattan.  First known as Skinner Road, the street was renamed in honor of Charles Christopher Amos, the son-in-law of Sir Peter Warren, a British admiral who owned a large portion of land in the area.   

Far from lower Manhattan, the Village became a refuge for many city residents who fled there during the yellow fever epidemic of 1822.  Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World, notes that Greenwich Village was so named for the Long Island village, Greenwyck, by a former resident of that town who moved into this neighborhood.  Previously it had been called Noortwyck or North District according to Shorto.

The history of African-Americans in New York City is also a part of the Village's history.  Many of the city's first black families settled on Bleecker, MacDougal, Sullivan and Thompson Streets which became known as "Little Africa."  The country's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), was located there.  America's first professional black theater, the African Grove, was established on Mercer Street in 1821-1823 by William Henry Brown, a free black immigrant from the West Indies.   

Sheridan Square (at Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street), named in honor of the Civil War General Philip Henry Sheridan, is a main Village cross-street.  Christopher Park has a bronze statue of Sheridan, designed by Joseph P. Pollia, and statues by George Segal of a male and female same-sex couples honoring the gay liberation movement.

The Gay Street sign has the unusual honor of being the most stolen street sign in the entire city of New York.  A curving and quaint street in the heart of the most notoriously gay neighborhood in the City, Gay Street is the shortest street in New York City.  Originally a stable alley, Gay Street runs from Christopher Street one block south to Waverly Place.  Ironically, the street’s name has nothing to do with the modern gay rights movement.  Historians differ about how the street got its name.  Some say the name honors Sidney Howard Gay, an abolitionist, member of the underground railroad, and editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard.  No matter, the street has a colorful and lively history.  

By Revolutionary War times, Gay Street was a hangout for black musicians and freed slaves, some of whom worked as servants to wealthy families in Washington Square.  During Prohibition, several speakeasies operated on the street.  NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker (1926 - 1932) lived at the 14 Gay Street townhouse.   Fourteen Gay Street was the home of author, Ruth McKenney, whose novel, My Sister Eileen, became a film with Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh and Bob Fosse in 1955.  It was later turned into the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green Broadway musical Wonderful Town (1953).  Gay author of The Lord Won't Mind and former intelligence officer, Gordon Merrick,  also lived here.

Wednesday evening salons, compared to those of Gertrude Stein's in Paris, were held by the wealthy Mabel Dodge at her 23 Fifth Avenue apartment.  They attracted well known writers, artists, and politically active personalities.  Everyone from Alfred Stieglitz to Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Margaret Sanger attended.  

Eugene O’Neill’s favorite hangout, the Golden Swan, (also know as the “Hell Hole (at Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street), would become “Harry’s Hope,” the saloon setting for his play The Iceman Cometh.  O’Neill described the bar as “a cheap ginmill of the five-cent whiskey.”  One of the regulars at the Hell Hole was “the penniless drifter and spellbinding dreamer Terry Carlin” on whom the character Larry Slade, is based.  Edward Albee allegedly got the title of his award winning play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, from graffiti written on the men's room wall of a Village bar, the Ninth Circle.

During Prohibition, the Village was a “center of speakeasy culture.”  At many establishments booze was served in paper coffee cups.  A young Barbra Streisand first gained fame at Village club, the Bon Soir, where she opened for comedian, Phyllis Diller.   In the 1960s and 1970s, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and other folk singers performed at  Village clubs on Bleecker Street. 

One of the most popular Village bars is Marie's Crisis.  It is a cabaret bar in the basement of a  townhouse, which was once an inn.  The bar gets its name from two different people of two different eras:  the Frenchwoman Marie Dumont, its original owner, and Thomas Paine, author of the Revolutionary War pamphlet Crisis and Common Sense, who lived there.  Coincidentally, another Marie, Marie Blake, was the joint's piano player and a popular black singer with a “sandpaper voice.  Marie's Crisis has been a gay piano bar for decades.  The building dates back to the 1800s and the bar to at least the 1920s.  At one time, poet Hart Crane also resided there.

Another bar, the White Horse Tavern (built in 1880) was known as a favorite hangout of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.  One evening in November 1953, Thomas staggered out of the bar and collapsed.  The following day he died at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital.  The cause of his death is disputed.  It was attributed to alcoholism but there is some evidence that Thomas had pneumonia.  British exiles living in New York were especially fond of the Tavern because it reminded them of the English pubs back home. 

A lesbian and gay club and tearoom, Eve's Hangout, was in the basement of 129 MacDougal Street. Opened in 1924 by Chawa Zioczewer, a Polish woman from Mlawa, Poland whose American name was Eve Adams, the bar was popular with lesbians, gays, feminists, artists, and the working class. During a police raid on June 11, 1926, a novel entitled Lesbian Love written by Eve, was found. She was charged with obscenity and disorderly contact, imprisoned at Jefferson Market Courthouse's women prison, and deported back to Europe where she would later die at Auschwitz

Famous Village residents have included Louisa Mae Alcott (130 MacDougal Street), Mark Twain (21 Fifth Avenue and founder of the "Damned Human Race Lunch Club"), James Baldwin, Willa Cather, James Fenimore Cooper, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings (#4 Patchin Place), John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Alan Ginsberg, Lorraine Hansberry (337 Bleecker Street), Patricia Highsmith (48 Grove Street), painter Edward Hopper, Washington Irving, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, Sinclair Lewis, playwright Eugene O'Neill, O'Henry, Edgar Allen Poe (Sixth Avenue & Waverly Place), Jackson Pollock (46 Carmine Street), artist Norman Rockwell, Eleanor Roosevelt (29 Washington Square), poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (75 1/2 Bedford Street), Edith Wharton, and William Carlos Williams.

To many New Yorkers, Greenwich Village remains one of the most charming neighborhoods in the city.