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The urban village

By Irene Corbally Kuhn / September 30, 1985



A neighborhood is not just a place where people live; it is more intimate than that, a conglomeration of men and women and children who, over time, come to know and recognize one another, who can smile and greet one another as they pass on the streets or meet in shops. In New York City, vast and impersonal in so many ways, a neighborhood is cherished because of its human qualities. And every New Yorker considers Greenwich Village, where I have lived all my life except for stretches abroad as a foreign correspondent, to be New York's quintessential neighborhood. It is, among other things, the oldest residential section of Manhattan, having come to life among the trees and streams of the island in the early years of the 18th century, metamor-phosing out of farmland and wilderness.

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In those early years of the city's settlement, the center of activity, residential and commercial, was ``downtown'' near the Battery, at the harbor's edge and a little distance behind. Then, suddenly, a plague struck, and everyone who could fled to the clean air and open spaces of the area that came to be known as Greenwich Village. Even when the danger had passed, many of the newcomers chose to stay, and the Village gradually became the neighborhood of affluent citizens who preferred the distant view o f the city that the Village then afforded.

It was not long, however, before so many others had followed their example that these first settlers moved out and ``uptown,'' leaving the Village to an appreciative group of newercomers who soon claimed it for their own. These were the early immigrants, the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, who added a marvelous variety of flavors, colors, and customs to the city's life, creating neighborhoods within neighborhoods, like Russian dolls.

As in every city, these charming variations on the urban scene began to attract artists, and in its next phase Greenwich Village, like the Left Bank in Paris, provided a congenial atmosphere where the talents of painters, poets, dramatists, sculptors, and novelists could flower and flourish. Much has changed in the Village since the days when it was home to the likes of Eugene O'Neill, Willa Cather, E. E. Cummings, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name just a few, but its essential spirit remains. It is a spirit that preserves the old but welcomes the new, tolerates and accommodates idiosyncrasy, makes space for the young, takes care of its own, and conveys a fundamental warmth and hospitality.

Foreigners who come here as tourists, out-of-towners, even some New Yorkers from other boroughs of the city, often get lost in its winding, eccentric streets. For, although New York was laid out on a grid plan of numbered north and south avenues and numbered east and west streets, with Fifth Avenue as the dividing line, those early planners found they had to cope with something else in the Village, namely cowpaths. They did the best they could, but to this day streets in the Village follow their own log ic. Bemused visitors find such anomalies as Waverly Place, which crosses itself, and West Fourth Street, which does not cross itself but does cross 10th, 11th, and 12th Streets. It can't cross Ninth Street because, inexplicably, Ninth lies six blocks north and, even more mysteriously, ends altogether where it meets Sixth Avenue.

Many times I have watched visitors poring over city maps and seen the look of relief on their faces when a native Villager volunteers directions. Many times also I have had the experience of not only proffering directions but even finding myself guiding the stranger to some little-known treasure of the Village. For we Villagers take pleasure in the delight of visitors in the unexpectedness and downright quirkiness of our neighborhood.

At the end of World War II, when developers descended on the Village, they began demolishing some of its best-loved fixtures, such as the gorgeous Beaux-Arts Hotel Lafayette. Villagers were prompt in organizing themselves to persuade City Hall that the Village and its priceless history had to be preserved. The result was that the entire Village was declared a historic landmark, off limits to those who would replace its fine old brownstones with high-rise condominiums.

These days the newest 'emigr'es in the Village are from Asia. Thus Chinese and Japanese restaurants can be found in almost every block, and Korean produce markets live peaceably beside old-time Italian coffeehouses and French patisseries. As always in the past, the young of every nationality and from every American state find the Village irresistibly appealing and flock to make their lives here. It is heartening to a third-generation Villager like me to see how quickly these newest neighbors have pitche d in to support some of our most cherished local institutions. These include neighborhood gardens, which are planned, planted, and lovingly tended by volunteer gardeners, or the association known as the Caring Community, which provides help in emergencies to those in need.

No one who lives in the Village lacks for neighbors or friends, for here the terms are interchangeable. Our neighbors are our friends.