julia foulkes

Greenwich Village: Dying since 1960?

I chaired a panel at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History conference this past weekend that considered the state of Greenwich Village in the 1950s-60s. Artists such as Judith Malina of the Living Theater insisted that the Village at that time was “the center of the universe!,” while others thought the increase in residential and commercial rent values, the expansion of New York University, and the influx of tourists to the Washington Square area were indications of imminent death. The East Village and SoHo began to claim the mantle of edginess and bohemianism in the 1960s, suggesting that sites of experimentation had moved east and south.

Papers by Stephen Petrus, Hillary Miller, and Brian Tochterman insightfully charted the debate and sparked these questions from me: To what extent can these accounts of change in Greenwich Village be attributed to generational differences? This comes across most clearly in Brian’s research with its focus on Irving Howe and Lionel Abel’s growing negative perceptions of New York. But I think it’s also there in the reverse, in the Village Voice’s rebelling against the midtown mainstream newspapers and the integrative push of the Greenwich Mews Theater. Is the Village of the 1960s for young folks? Is it now for the middle-aged and elderly?

How do institutional anchors impact this sense of change? The Village Voice comes, and, more recently goes; the Greenwich Mews Theater closes in 1970. And, if I may be provincial, the state of the New School influences my question. The school seems to be an example of what the panel is about overall: the perceived lost “edge” of the Village in contrast to SoHo and the East Village and even as an arts and intellectual life continue—but perhaps not so edgy. So John Cage taught his experimental composition course at the New School in 1959 but it’s clear that other institutions such as the soon-celebrated Judson Church had far more cachet as a place of the avant-garde than the New School at that point (which had been on 12th St. for thirty years by 1961). I wonder if this era of the 1950s-60s might be characterized by the aged images of rebellion from early 20th century becoming institutionalized practices rather than creating alternative practices, a kind of institutionalization of radicalism?

These questions point to another: rebellion and experimentation for whom? Hillary takes up the question of race most explicitly in her discussion of Vinnette Carroll, Langston Hughes, and Stella Holt and the development of the gospel song-play at the Greenwich Mews Theater. I wonder if the white-male-centered world of the magazines that Brian and Stephen discussed isn’t indicative of the larger shift in cultural expression and authority—still held in print, perhaps, by white men but with changes felt more in performance especially, where Carroll and Hughes are playing Lincoln Center as well as Spoleto and the Mews (even as Carroll struggles to gain many opportunities throughout her career).

Also, one of the striking changes in the Village arts scene of the 1950s-60s is that many of the folks discussed do not live there, in contrast to the bohemian scene of the early 20th century. In the fall of 1955, the New School held a series of conversations “initiated for Villagers by Villagers” under the umbrella title “Explore Greenwich Village.” Most evenings were devoted to the arts, one on music from folk to jazz and avant-garde; another on Off-Broadway theater with a dramatic reading by Uta Hagen; one on visual artists. But one of the organizers noted afterward that “these were an unrealistic attempt to demonstrate the origins of The New School in the life of Greenwich Village when it was suddenly noticed that most students came from distant parts of NYC.” To what extent is the Village then more about people visiting the neighborhood than neighbors coming together?

Finally, the arts scene of the 1970s changes dramatically with the fiscal crisis—and sets off more movement from the arts scenes of Manhattan to other parts of the city, not just SoHo and the East Village but the Bronx, Brooklyn, and beyond. I’m curious whether this larger city-wide shift toward community organizations, performances in open outside settings, arts education ventures is a dispersion of Greenwich Village-like elements of bohemian and artistic values and lifestyles? Does the life of the Village now live elsewhere and in many places, not just in this particular locale?

Robert Otter, Cafe Rienzi, 1960