Hanging a plaque where the Beat generation hung out

Photos by Tequila Minsky Jazz virtuoso David Amram spoke at the San Remo plaque dedication ceremony, as Andrew Berman, left, and Phil Hartman, right, listened.

Photos by Tequila Minsky
Jazz virtuoso David Amram spoke at the San Remo plaque dedication ceremony, as Andrew Berman, left, and Phil Hartman, right, listened.

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |  From 1925 to 1967, the San Remo bar and restaurant ran the length of the building at the northwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Sts. and was a hangout for the most creative Village folks of the day, a who’s who of the Beat generation.

The San Remo’s heyday was from the 1940s to the early ’60s, when literary, musical and visual artists mingled with each other along with regular folk who found their way to this intellectual hub.

An Italian restaurant is now located where the restaurant part of San Remo was and a coffee shop today is where its cafe / bar used to be.

On Monday, a new plaque was unveiled on the MacDougal side, commemorating the venue’s significance to the Village and to its era.

It reads: “In its post-war heyday, the San Remo was a meeting place for an unparalleled array of figures from the Beat movement, the New York School of poets and painters, and The Living Theatre. Regulars included Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Frank O’Hara, Judith Malina, Jackson Pollock, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal, several of whom first met there. Many of them immortalized the San Remo in their writings. These literary and artistic icons became the voices of their generation, and their impact still resonates today. The San Remo became a place for cross-pollination, where the artists — some meeting for the first time — influenced each other often leading to collaborations.”

The San Remo was opened by Italian immigrants the Santini family — and run by at least two generations of the family. It was a typical Italian restaurant: pressed-tin ceilings, black-and-white tile floors, wooden-bench booths, and they served expresso.

But it went way beyond that, added Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who presided over the unveiling ceremony.

Unveiling the commemorative plaque.

Unveiling the commemorative plaque.

“It was racially integrated,” he said. “Gay and straight people hung out there. It was a place where women could wear jeans,” he added to a few guffaws from the crowd of gray-haired former patrons and Village residents that overflowed from the sidewalk into MacDougal St.

World-renowned jazz musician and composer Dave Amram, a frequent patron of the joint, helped in the celebratory tribute and spoke in the most loving and poetic terms of what the San Remo meant to him.  He recalled how extraordinary a place it was, where anybody could go. There were enormously influential figures, yet the San Remo was accessible to everybody.

“You could get a degree in hanging-out there,” he joked.

The place was memorialized in the 1952 Beat novel “Go” by John Clellon Holmes, and mentioned as the fictionalized “The Mask” in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 “The Subterraneans.”

Phil Hartman of Two Boots Pizza — whose foundation sponsored the plaque, its second, as part of a new G.V.S.H.P. program — read a piece by Delmore Schwartz, the poet and short-story writer.

Santini niece Joan Schechter, who grew up in the building and worked at the San Remo, shared family lore that theirs was “the first espresso machine” in New York.

John Tumminia, president of the board of the building, 93 MacDougal St., expressed how happy he was to be part of this remembrance.

Village resident Mark Sebastian, who co-wrote the lyrics for “Summer in the City” with his brother John, was spotted in the crowd. Also on hand were Soho residents poets Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo.

Dalachinsky mused how the San Remo, along with a slew of other MacDougal St. cafes and bars, were where “you hung out, wrote and had fun.”

This area of the South Village is under consideration by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a historic district, and Dalachinsky spoke to the significance of that designation.

“It’s very, very important that that part of history be preserved, unlike when they destroyed the Provincetown Theater, which N.Y.U. did,” he said. “The block should have been landmarked a long time ago.”

Dalachinsky noted that MacDougal between Bleecker and W. Third Sts. and Minetta Lane constituted “our higher-education institution.”

On this beautiful evening, Arlene Gottfried, a photographer who lives at Westbeth, wanted to be part of the moment for the historic plaque unveiling.

“I know that this was a hangout for the people who became known as the Beats,” she said.

After the dedication ceremony, those present noshed on some Two Boots pizza.

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5 Responses to Hanging a plaque where the Beat generation hung out

  1. I was so happy to attend this event. A great day in the Village! But it's unfortunate that places like this are long gone, and all we can do is hang a plaque. Gentrification has done us in, and this area is now the domain of Bloomberg's tourists. He's built a town that we can't afford to live in anymore. Today's version of the great artists who hung at San Remo are probably at a run down bar in Bushwick right now, and soon enough they'll be pushed out of there, too.

  2. I am sorry I forgot to come to the unveiling. I remember going to the restaurant
    part of the San Remo (I didn't even know about the bar; I was an NYU sophomore),
    and ordering eggplant parmigian for 99 cents, and a glass of red wine for a
    quarter. That was within my budget!

  3. The San Remo was pretty much a gay bar in the early 60's, far more social than cruisy, although happy accidents did happen. An impressive "full-figured" woman with a 1940's hair-do (she was said to be "Betty, the owner's wife) prowled the tile floor, silently checking out each table with a warning look that said "Do not abuse your welcome by behaving like faggots." The preppy gays went to Julius', the artsy queers to the San Remo. Ondine and Andy and Billy Name were regulars; the first Factory was invented there, and playwrights, painters, poets, and musicians who would become as famous as they were fabulous hung out at the San Remo in its final years. Betty was generally pacified when there was a real girl or two for every five or six boys; they were fag-hags then, they're still our best friends now. Max's Kansas City, in lots of ways, was the San Remo redux, on a much larger scale.

  4. I remember, as per Michael Maslansky, a beloved San Remo habitue in the great days, that when Simone Signoret dropped into the Remo one evening for a few drinks and caused a stir, someone went over to Betty to tell her exactly who Signoret was, saying that she was a very big star. To which Betty replied, "To me youse is all big stars."

  5. Greenwich Village would already be consigned to Wikepediaville as an interesting historical footnote were it not for the passion and perseverance of Andrew Berman and GVSHP. Andrew, thanks for preserving the precious memories!

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