New York's heart loses its beat
For decades, the streets of Greenwich Village beat as the counterculture heart of American life. From Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac to the anonymous thousands fresh off the bus from Middle America, it has provided a sanctuary for the alternative and outcast or those simply fleeing a suburban childhood.
No longer. America’s Bohemian pulse has faded. Assailed by sky-high rents, chain stores and hyper-expensive eateries, Greenwich Village is starting to look more Wall Street than Beat Street. Last week, a headline in the Village Voice, New York’s venerable alternative newspaper, said simply: “The Village is dying”.
Another Voice column was more brutal. It called the remnants of the Village’s Bohemian lifestyle “threadbare” and concluded that poor poets, struggling artists and wannabe actors had been forced out by a simple new reality: “One must be rich to live here.”
For many New Yorkers, that comes as no surprise. The Village has been remorselessly gentrified since the 1980s. Neighbourhood coffee shops have become Starbucks, local diners have become chic restaurants booked up weeks in advance or have been turned into a McDonald’s. Now the Voice‘s strident tone and a documentary called The Ballad of Greenwich Village have shown how the final nails have been driven into the coffin of a neighbourhood whose artistic contribution to American cultural life is unmatched.
“The Village has changed absolutely,” said Karen Kramer, who laboured for 13 years to film The Ballad of Greenwich Village. Kramer is a 30-year veteran of the area who arrived from the suburbs in search of excitement. “The Village has become very homogenised now. It is a terrible loss.”
Certainly The Ballad of Greenwich Village shows how much the area has contributed to world culture. The roll call of famous names who once made their homes in the neighbourhood spans poetry, music and literature. They include Bob Dylan, Edward Albee, Henry James, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Edgar Allan Poe and Dylan Thomas.
The Village played host to literary greats, alternative newspapers, modern art, the Beat poets, radical plays, underground jazz and the folk revolution of the 1960s. Its coffee shops, bars and theatres have helped to change the world.
The neighbourhood has been eulogised many times, but The Ballad of Greenwich Village is perhaps the most affecting. Kramer tracked down Mailer, actor Tim Robbins, Ginsberg, the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, actor and director Woody Allen, writer Maya Angelou and many others to record their memories of the Village when they were struggling artists and not household names.
Sitting in his old drinking haunt, the White Horse (where Thomas had his final drink before his death), Mailer was blunt about the appeals of loose Greenwich Village women.
“It was a mecca [for sex],” he told Kramer.
But the film shows how different it is now. The White Horse may hang a huge painting of Thomas on its wall, but it is far from a seedy literary boozer. It is popular with lawyers, financial workers and wealthy students. It is certainly not a smoky haunt—as, in all of New York, smoking is now banned.
Many other once-famous cafés, bars and theatres have closed their doors. Tiny, family-run stores are on the retreat before a wave of big-name brands. On the main thoroughfare of Bleecker Street there are no fewer than three Marc Jacobs stores. Another Village block has three Ralph Lauren outlets.
In 1964, Paul Simon wrote a song, Bleecker Street, as a paean to the days of the hard-living and poor Beat poets. “A poet reads his crooked rhyme/Holy, holy is his sacrament/Thirty dollars pays your rent/On Bleecker Street,” the lyric ran.
Those days are long gone. Thirty dollars won’t even buy you much of a meal on Bleecker Street any more, let alone pay for an apartment. Rocketing rents have been the main factor behind the transformation of the Village. Its winding streets, low rise “brownstone” apartment buildings and artistic reputation have attracted money like nowhere else in New York. As rent controls were relaxed in the city, unscrupulous landlords forced out old residents in favour of high-paying business executives.
“It is all about rental prices. No one but the rich can afford to come here any more,” said Kramer. Mailer echoes her thoughts in the film, noting the irony that the neighbourhood once seen as anti-bourgeoisie is now home to the wealthy.
“It is one of the great ironies of today that unless you are high up in that bourgeoisie world you can’t afford an apartment in the Village,” he said.
But what has happened in the Village has been mirrored elsewhere in New York as once-gritty urban neighbourhoods have grown wealthy. Despite a still-fearsome reputation, New York is one of the safest cities in the United States, boasting a similar crime rate to Boise, Idaho.
The most recent former crime hot spot to become gentrified is the Bowery, once famed as the original Skid Row. Now fresh apartment blocks and boutique hotels are springing up. One 21-storey tower on the Bowery boasts a penthouse apartment for sale at $12-million and the Bowery punk club CBGB, which launched the careers of the Ramones, Television and Blondie, is threatened with closure.
As the money has flowed into the Village, the artists have left. They have set up studios in such far-flung neighbourhoods as Long Island City and Williamsburg.
“It is the rental prices, pure and simple,” said David Altmejd, a leading Canadian artist who has a studio in Long Island City and will be exhibiting in London next year. “I don’t know any artists in the Village. I can’t even be nostalgic for it as it just does not have any contemporary relevance.”
The Village is now primarily as a tourist destination and nightspot for out-of-towners. It plays host to a Sex and the City bus tour, which brings in hundreds each day to look at sights made famous by the eponymous racy TV series, not the neighbourhood’s glorious cultural past. The Village’s meatpacking district, once a tough grid of streets known equally for meat warehouses and transvestites, is now a busy nightclubbing zone.
Even Washington Square, where folk singers once rioted after being banned from jamming in the park, is facing a redevelopment scheme, complete with iron fences to keep people off the grass.
That scheme has outraged many Village residents, who attended one meeting with city officials bearing placards accusing the scheme’s designer of being a “rapist” of the park. But the truth is that the Village is not known for protests any more. From being a place where folk singers, gay rights activists and Vietnam protesters have all fought the police, it is now a middle-class enclave where the Iraq war causes concerned dinner party conversation and little else.
Some believe the Village could re-emerge. In Kramer’s film, Peter, Paul and Mary express a belief that the Village historically goes through periods of quiet before bubbling up again. But Kramer thinks, sadly, they are wrong.
“It is never going to happen again,” she said.—Guardian Unlimited Â