Volume 77 / Number 48 - April 30 - May 6, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Celebrating 75 years:

bouncedThat ’70s paper: Nixon, gay rights, bounced checks

By Reed Ide

In 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller presides over the dedication of the newly completed World Trade Center. The U.S. and North Vietnam sign the Paris peace agreement. And Richard Nixon prevaricates through a year of Watergate investigations.

It has been four years since the Stonewall riots signaled the opening round of the gay rights struggle.

In the heart of gay Greenwich Village, Wallace Hamilton writes his autobiographical “Christopher and Gay,” a participant’s account of the exuberant explosion of gay life that is taking place in his dooryard.

In the Far West Village, Ralph Lee, artist and creator of fantastical puppets, takes his bigger-than-life creations — and his friends and family — on a neighborhood Halloween romp that will be remembered as the first annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.

In a Seventh Ave. studio, artist Bruce Colin works with a dentist’s drill, sculpting nature into Lucite blocks. On Eighth Ave., just north of Abingdon Square, a small storefront cigar-making business thrives.

At University Pl. and 10th St., on the ground floor of the Albert Hotel, The Villager holds somewhat shabby court — struggling to keep its venerable chin up in the swirl of unstoppable change.

This is the year I become editor of The Villager. It doesn’t seem so long ago — until I realize half of today’s U.S. population was born after 1973.

I’m sure I show my age when I say that Greenwich Village was “different” then. Apartments were affordable; my studio (with working fireplace) was $125 a month, less than a quarter of my $7,800 annual salary. Families, couples, artists, writers, gays and just plain folks could all live comfortably side by side. People still loved the eccentric characters in their neighborhoods. And they loved a good controversy. In summer, people carried their arguments to the streets. Ad hoc block meetings occurred on stoops; neighborhoods could be mobilized by shouting from the sidewalk.

Two favorite targets of ire were Community Board 2 and, to a lesser degree, the Village Independent Democrats. Both were visible, accessible centers of power within the community. And at times both could certainly be guilty of hubris.

Perhaps the most important community event of 1973-’74 was the demolition of the massive 12-story Women’s House of Detention on Greenwich Ave. behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse. Nearly all residents and community groups were squarely behind the efforts of the community board to raze the building. There was, predictably, a vocal group of residents who felt the building should be saved. They wanted a multiuse facility that would include housing, a community center and a hub of services for senior citizens. All admirable. All needed. Wrong building.

The Villager happily published both points of view, while maintaining an editorial position that the building should indeed be demolished. Tempers on both sides rarely fell below the boiling point.

Dorothy Ryan, anti-demolition, wrote to the editor, “It would seem that the ‘haves’ of Greenwich Village continuously dictate to the ‘have-nots’ what they should not have! … This building…can be put to good use for desperately needed facilities for our senior citizens…”

The Villager was doing something right. Both sides were unhappy with us. The community board was more displeased. Uncharacteristically, the paper was giving the opposition some space in its pages.

In the end, of course, Mayor John Lindsay arrived to wield the first blow of the pickax, and the building came down.

The sad piece of the story is that it marked the end of any attention to the very real community needs that were at the heart of the opposition’s argument. Ah, hubris.

The Village Independent Democrats increasingly felt heat from liberals who believed the club was becoming just another establishment organization of political hacks and “haves.” But in the early ’70s, the club began to feel pressure from another group that should have been part of its natural constituency — the gay community. Gays were not enchanted with V.I.D., and especially not happy with the city councilwoman representing the Village, Carol Greitzer. She came reluctantly to the gay “table,” and was a less than enthusiastic supporter of the gay drive for a civil rights bill.

Jim Owles, founding president of the Gay Activists Alliance, ran against Greitzer for her Council seat in 1973. While Owles was never a real threat, the campaign had some hot moments, especially when Greitzer termed Owles’s cause “benighted.” In the end he received 21 percent of the vote — quite respectable for the first openly gay candidate running for city office. More important, the experience strengthened Owles’s belief that gays needed to develop their own political base. The following year he founded the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.

Interspersed among the more eye-catching news events were other important happenings. The Villager successfully spearheaded a campaign to save the renowned Dauber and Pine Bookstore from extinction. We followed unsuccessful community efforts to prevent McDonald’s from establishing its first Manhattan restaurant in Greenwich Village. (That’s right, Manhattan had no McDonald’s before 1973.) Along with 10,000 other folks, we happily participated in the Christopher St. Liberation Day Parade as it marched downtown to a Washington Square Park rally.

Some events caused real community sadness. For years, the Brotherhood Synagogue shared a sanctuary with the Village Presbyterian Church on W. 13th St. The two congregations were known nationally for their living example of brotherhood. In 1971, Reverend William Glenesk arrived as the new minister, best known for officiating at the 1969 wedding of Tiny Tim on “The Tonight Show.” Disputes occurred frequently between Glenesk and Rabbi Irving Block. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the rabbi placed a sign in front of the building that read, “May there be victory for Israel.” Reverend Glenesk responded with his own sign expressing apologies for the rabbi’s “arrogant, self-righteous sign.” In March 1974, the Jewish congregation removed itself from the shared space, ending the 20-year arrangement.

Through all these events, The Villager itself was suffering. Longtime residents feared the newspaper was on its last legs. The staff didn’t disagree. Most newcomers to the neighborhood didn’t care very much. They were, if anything, readers of The Village Voice. Advertising revenues dwindled. The slide toward financial disaster intensified. The publishers, never ones to take a real interest in the paper, were completely absent. Paychecks bounced regularly. Jim Bledsoe, who had worked at the paper as general manager for nearly 20 years, was perpetually distraught. Most weeks he covered staff paychecks and other expenses with his own personal funds until more money came from the owners. When that money arrived, it was eaten by other operating expenses. The paper shrank to eight pages. Morale declined, then became undetectable.

Jim Bledsoe left with sadness in July 1974 at the age of 62. He held thousands of dollars of worthless Villager checks. He went to work for the City Record and remained there until he was 74 when a cancer diagnosis forced his retirement.

A few months later, The Villager was sold. The staff changed. I moved on to the relatively colorless N.Y.U. Alumni Publications office.

Alas, high hopes at The Villager soon crashed. The new publisher was, at heart, a dilettante. Financial woes continued to plague the paper.

It would be three more years before Michael Armstrong came from Brooklyn to not only buy the paper, but also to position it firmly in the new reality of Village life. The Villager came alive once more.

Ide is the editor of GetawayGay guidebooks for gay and lesbian travelers.

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