Volume 75, Number 22 | October 19 - 22, 2005

Notebook

Remembering a time when the Village was affordable

By Patricia Fieldsteel

When I moved to my first apartment in the West Village, known back then simply as the Village or Greenwich Village, my relatives went into deep mourning that I’d moved to such a scruffy, unstylish, obscure neighborhood. No doubt they had visions of my finding an elegant old apartment in a doorman building somewhere on the Upper East Side or of taking a room at the then très soignée Barbizon Hotel for (Career) Women. This was not to be. I was sick of the Upper East Side and everything it stood for. I had fallen in love with the Village’s narrow winding streets, the funky shops, the tiny townhouses and Belgian stone-blocked streets. The area reminded me of the Left Bank of Paris, where I really wanted to live, but Manhattan for now was my goal. I was desperate to get out of the ghastly suburbs of Long Island where I’d grown up. Also, the Village, especially the West Village, was cheap because no one wanted to live there. I did.

This was the fall of 1969 and I had a job as an editorial assistant in the children’s book department (known as Books for Young Readers) at a small left-wing publishing house, whose offices were next door to Bergdorf Goodman on W. 57th St. I was living with my widowed grandmother and aunt in Peter Cooper Village while I looked for a “room of my own.” Rent control had just ended and apartment prices had skyrocketed. Studios were going for as much as $200 per month, an unheard of fee. My coworkers were all living in spacious multi-roomed apartments for which they were paying between $75 and $100, a fair and sizable sum in those days. (Bear in mind, my weekly salary was $97.50 before taxes and with no benefits!)

My first apartment was on Horatio St. at the corner of Washington St. Horatio in those days was known as a bad and dangerous place; Jane St., where I moved three years later, was a step up but still not a “good” street. The West Village was a less-than-desirable area, tucked away as it was in a faraway inaccessible pocket bordered by the Meat Market and the shipping docks, massive crumbling carapaces that had leeched themselves to the Lower West Side, obliterating the river from view. Across from the piers, from West to Greenwich Sts. was a dank warren of small factories, meat packers, printing plants and light industry.

Enormous trucks blocked the streets, spewing fumes into already fetid air, blackened by free-flowing soot from unregulated building incinerators. There were no trees, no gardens, no parks. If you had enough money to take a taxi, you couldn’t find one — drivers didn’t want to get caught in the miasma of crisscrossing, winding streets with names rather than numbers and when there were numbers, they made little sense — Little W. 12th was no where near W. 12th, which bisected W. Fourth. Friends didn’t want to visit your apartment because they were sure they wouldn’t find it — and if they did, they were certain they’d be unable to find their way out. People also seemed to have the idea it wasn’t quite safe “down there.” When I’d tell people I lived on Horatio and later Jane St., their usual response was “Is THAT in New York??”

Compared to the East Village, the West Village was staid, almost boring. The neighborhood was heavily blue-collar working-class, with many tenements and rooming houses. Some of the most beautiful restored private townhouses lining Jane St. today in the 1960s were broken up into seven- and 10-family tenements or boarding houses renting out single-occupancy rooms to single, often “wayward” men. Yes, there were artists, musicians and writers, all poor and struggling rather than the megastar super millionaire ones living there today. The singer Richie Havens was working as a street artist on MacDougal St. and could be seen evenings strumming his guitar on the stoop of the Jane St. building where he and his family lived in the basement apartment. Of course, he wasn’t yet “Richie Havens.” Nobody was anybody back then, but the air was bursting with creativity and the spirit of possibility; everyone living there was on their way to something better; and the West Village, for those of us who’d come fleeing someplace else, was a first stop.

New York was on the verge of bankruptcy; people were ditching the city in massive droves and there was a housing glut — too many apartments and not enough people to rent them. (This was long before co-op/condo fever began.) On Jane St. there were two relatively new gigantic red-brick behemoths constructed in the early ’60s on the site of former three- and four-story houses, The Rembrandt at 31 Jane and the Cezanne at 61. They were both languishing, half empty because they’d been built in a “bad” location during a “bad” time. As added incentives to lure people Downtown, landlords threw bagel-and-lox parties, champagne brunches and early evening cocktail gatherings, all complete with sales brochures, apartment tours and offers of several months free rent, IF ONLY people would be willing to live on Jane St.! A few landlords even offered free vacation trips to the Caribbean in exchange for a signature on a lease.

Some people managed at the time to do something considered risky and mildly crazy — they scraped together enough money to buy a townhouse. In 1962, a four-story 1846 townhouse with a back garden on the south side of Jane St. between Eighth Ave. and Hudson St. cost $47,500; a three-story 1845 townhouse around the corner on the west side of Eighth Ave. between Jane and W. 12th Sts. was $37,000 in 1965. In 1970, when friends initially balked at paying $80,000 for a townhouse on the same beautiful block, their lawyer advised they go ahead, “in 20 years it will be worth $100,000!” Of course, at the time all these unrefurbished townhouses were broken up into apartments with existing tenants and the new owners initially were able to occupy only a couple of rooms.

In today’s market, those same houses would sell for between $6 million and $12 million.

There was one supermarket in the neighborhood then, a decrepit A & P on the ground floor of 99 Bank St., another relatively new red-brick behemoth. There was a tiny Gristede’s, in those days luxury markets complete with sawdust on the floor and salesmen in long white aprons, on W. 12th St. just east of Eighth Ave., but it was quite expensive. Farther east on the west side of Sixth Ave. was The Jefferson Market, but Balducci’s was still a mom-and-pop fruit-and-vegetable stand on Greenwich Ave., across the street from the infamous Women’s House of Detention, which dominated life in that part of the Village. At all hours of the day and night, friends, family members, pimps, prostitutes, partners in crime would stand on the sidewalk screaming up to the women behind the barred windows who would hurl obscenities or cries of “Get me outta here!” at the crowd below. Sutter’s Bakery was across the street on the corner of W. 10th and Greenwich Ave. and it was possible to sit for hours over a cup of coffee and what was known in those days as a “Danish pastry.” There were no lattes, grandes, mochachinos or even cappuccinos — just plain old coffee for 20 cents a cup with free refills. Next door to Sutter’s upstairs on the second floor on Greenwich Ave. was the headquarters of the relatively new and exciting Village Voice, the front windows plastered with Tomi Ungerer posters promoting The Voice with the slogan “Expect the Unexpected.” The School of Visual Arts around the same time had a poster of a self-portrait by Paul Gauguin placed behind a drawn-in cashier’s window with the words “At 34, Paul Gauguin worked in a bank.…” The excitement of creative possibility having nothing to do with money and the accumulation of material goods was pervasive. Not that any of us would have had an allergic reaction should wealth have come our way, but it certainly wasn’t a goal to devout one’s life to achieving. Perhaps because New York was still relatively inexpensive, people had more flexibility and freedom to change and experiment.

Culture and the arts weren’t privileges of the well-to-do. Most museums were free and some public libraries were open on Sunday; stores were closed. Of course, there were no personal computers, no VCRs and DVDs, no Internet and no ATM machines. A first-run feature movie at the Loew’s Sheridan at Seventh Ave. S. and W. 11th St. was 75 cents. For the same price you could catch a double bill of Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini at the marvelously seedy Elgin on Eighth Ave. in Chelsea and arrive at another dimension from the headiness of the films mixed free of charge with the ever-present smoke cloud of Mary Jane and the aroma of cat pee.

The only “parks” — Washington Square, Union Square and Tompkins Square to the east — were nasty, drug-infested places. If you wanted to sit outside, you sat on a stoop. In front of most buildings on the sidewalk were dented gray-metal trash cans whose lids made a racket every time someone deposited their trash. When I lived on Horatio, crazy, obese Lucille, “the mayor of Horatio St.” who was murdered in the 1990s, would go through the garbage and read out loud, with commentary, in a sort of street theater performance the letters, bank statements, bills and warning notices of whichever neighbors she was fighting with at the time. Horatio St. in those days was a cesspool; the stench of blood, spilled offal and rotting meat from the Meat Market was so overpowering, not only did you not want to sit on your stoop, you also often didn’t want to open your window. Gansevoort and Little W. 12th were smack in the middle of the Market as were all the blocks west of Greenwich St. going down below Bank St. The mammoth refrigerated trucks started pouring into the West Village every night around 1 a.m. to deliver raw carcasses to the meatpacking plants; the old High Line railroad would noisily creak along its overhead track around the same time, both making deliveries all night and into the early afternoon of fresh-killed carcasses waiting to be cut up. One day as I went to pick up some artwork at Westbeth on my way to work, I walked along Washington St. around 8 a.m. only to discover a row of metal trash cans near Jane St., each with an enormous bloody brown cow head sticking out of the top.

Walking along Washington St. one could also see the emerging towers of the World Trade Center as they went up, first one, then the other. Many people hated them — this was the height of the Vietnam War as well as the women’s liberation movement — and many saw the towers as giant phallic symbols of military-industrial materialism and power. The builders were widely criticized for having bought 25 percent of the steel from Japan as well as for not foreseeing the killer wind tunnels the towers initially created. The towers pumped 170,000 gallons per day of raw sewage into the already horrendously polluted Hudson River and were directly in the flyway of migrating birds who slammed into the buildings and littered the ground below with hundreds of their smashed bird bodies. People were outraged at the death of the birds. At some point in the late 1980s, there was a terrible rain storm, followed by several days of severe fog. The World Trade Center was totally obliterated from view. I remember standing with a friend at Abingdon Square, looking south and marveling at the open sky. People were laughing and pointing because it truly seemed funny, back then, “Hey look! There’s no World Trade Center! Wow! Look! Look!”

Recently, I received an e-mail from a friend on Jane St., a homeowner, lamenting the changes in the West Village, the gentrification and new barriers and hostilities that seem to exist among neighbors. “In the old days,” she lamented, “we could fight viciously at meetings and have hamburgers at the Bistro together afterwards.” I’m not so sure life was that much better in the old days, maybe it was. It certainly was different, perhaps simpler. Definitely from the point of view of today, more innocent, almost naive. After having made the Village my home for nearly 35 years, I left three years ago. My former neighbors tell me I wouldn’t recognize the West Village today.

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