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 bohemian lifestyles, an unconventional place of tolerance, diversity, progressive thinking, a home to creative artists and writers. It's a neighborhood of non-conformists with a history of welcoming minority groups, artists, blacks, and the LGBTQ community and where "anything goes." 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" proclaims 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. “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 Counterculture. Some 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. They fished and camped at the trout stream Minetta Brook (now the small 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, Christopher Street was renamed in honor of Charles Christopher Amos, the son-in-law of Sir Peter Warren, the owner a large portion of the 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. The Village had previously been called Noortwyck or North District, according to Shorto.

The Village's history also played a role in African-American history. Many of the city's first black families settled in the area 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 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 12 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).

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.

Famous Village residents have included Louisa Mae Alcott, Mark Twain (who founded the "Damned Human Race Lunch Club"), James Baldwin, Willa Cather, James Fenimore Cooper, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Alan Ginsberg, Edward Albee, Patricia Highsmith, painter Edward Hopper, Washington Irving, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, Sinclair Lewis, playwright Eugene O'Neill, O'Henry, Edgar Allen Poe, artist Norman Rockwell, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and William Carlos Williams.

Greenwich Village remains one of the most charming neighborhoods in New York City.