Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

A special Villager supplement

Beats and bongos to business: A special community

By Jim Hart

I made my first pilgrimage to Greenwich Village from nearby Long Island in the early ’60s. My parents had left New York City in the mid-’50s, like so many others, to find a better life for themselves in the new sprawl of suburbia. It is hard to set this properly, but it was a terribly exotic and willful thing to do back then. Had I been discovered, I would have paid dearly for such an excursion. Greenwich Village represented everything that my parents were trying to protect us from. For, after all, Nassau County in those days was the first real Red State.

I probably left sometime in midmorning and no doubt I was home before nightfall. But in just one afternoon I was to fall in love with a geographic place; a love affair that was to last a lifetime. It was really the first time that I was to meet, “the other.” Walking down MacDougal and Bleecker I saw my first live beatnik, my first interracial couple, first openly gay man and as I recall my first human being with long blonde hair wearing a helmet with horns sticking out of it. The sights and sounds of that day were, for me — like so many others of my generation — a place to find one’s self suddenly free and new. I sat in a place called Cafe Wha and drank some sort of faux cocktail while an aspiring beat poet read his poetry accompanied to the beat of bongo drums. By the way, have bongos become extinct? I don’t hear them much anymore. The thrill of that afternoon was mostly how it muted so much of how I thought the world worked. It allowed me to actually see and feel a world that was so much more than the one I knew. A world that challenged so many assumptions.

I spent a good deal of the rest of my life in Manhattan but home always seemed closer to me whenever I stepped off the subway at the W. Fourth St. stop. Like so many others I have met, I became convinced that very few other folks knew the real secret Greenwich Village that I had been able to discover. This ranged from the best music, off-Broadway theater, strange and exotic clubs, incredible food and endless pubs that mixed smoke and story in the most magical manner.

Chelsea, on the other hand, was mostly a place that I passed through. Other than 14th and 23rd Sts., Chelsea was a sea of dank old factory buildings with little going on that anyone would stop and bother with, especially after dark.

Well, things have changed, for Greenwich Village, Chelsea and even me. I have left New York and returned more than a couple of times. I have been married, divorced and remarried. Raised sons and daughters and have had more career changes then a Chelsea apartment has had rent increases, and now I find myself back in the Village. Just as surprising, I am also the new chairperson of The Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. That is a story of its own but I couldn’t be more excited with this new position.

The Chamber is as varied as the communities that it serves. Our membership includes everything from sole proprietorships and medium-size businesses to large corporations and major charitable and educational organizations. The Chamber offers its members numerous benefits and services, including networking opportunities, business and educational seminars, government advocacy, insurance programs, marketing and promotional campaigns and so much more.

This past year, the Chamber has seen a rapid growth in membership, a doubling of our budget and the emergence of many ideas that we are just now putting into action. For example, as part of our annual Safe Cities, Safe Communities event where we honor local police officers, we just launched a new program called Safe Haven. We will recruit retailers and restaurants to put yellow stickers on their storefronts, declaring that they are a “Safe Haven” for kids on the streets who are in trouble or are being threatened. We have already signed up our first Safe Haven — Butterflies and Zebras, a new floral shop and Chamber member on Avenue of the Americas (at Washington Pl.).

Building a community here in the Village and in Chelsea is vitally important, and that’s why I think it’s so critical to have an organization like the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, it is why I have decided to chair the Chamber after three great years under Michael Haberman’s leadership.

As someone who lives here in this historic area, you can rest assured that I will work day and night with the Chamber to ensure that both the Village and Chelsea remain two of the greatest neighborhoods in which to work and live.

I have spent the better part of the last few months roaming around the Village and Chelsea, introducing myself to current members and welcoming new ones.

Sometimes in a conversation, a smile or a glance, I think I might be hearing the faint sound of those bongo drums again. Please let me know if you hear anything yourself.

Hart is chairperson, Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce

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