Greenwich Village Stories
Donna Karan, Lou Reed, Brooke Shields, and Others Remember Our Neighborhood
Greenwich Village has old-timers, who wax nostalgic about the Greenwich Village that once was. Our iconic neighborhood has changed so much in recent decades that its previous life seems like a world virtually unknown to New Yorkers today. There was a time when Union Square played host to Andy Warhol’s Factory, when a one-bedroom on West 4th Street went for $32 a month (instead of $3,200), and when Bob Dylan would stroll into the local guitar shop. Although legendary bohemian hangouts such as Max’s Kansas City (now a diner) and Cedar Tavern (now a waxing salon) have fallen victim to changing times, and hippies no longer populate Washington Square Park, there is something to be said for the fact that there are those who have lived through it all are still there—and for those who have left, their spirits always will be.
This is a collection of reminiscences from longtime Village inhabitants—all of which are excerpted from the book Greenwich Village Stories (Rizzoli), published by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
It’s 1993. I get fired. Again. Of course, I deserve it. I’m a terrible employee. Personal calls, chronic tardiness, serial affairs with coworkers . . . and bosses! Do I despair? No! I’m a Village person. Nobody in the Village has a job; everyone has a calling. The Village is an alternative universe where any creative dream can become a reality. The Village is Oz. I tromp on over to Greenwich House on Jones Street, sign up for a pottery class, and begin my odyssey.
I found my first apartment on the corner of West 10th Street and West 4th Street, where those streets collide in a burst of Village logic. I lived in a four-story walk-up with a 20-foot ceiling and skylight, wood-burning fireplace, eat-in kitchen, bathroom with a tub and shower, looking out into a bunch of backyard gardens. The rent? $32 a month. The previous tenants were two sisters who had lived there for 40 years at $22 a month. In 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved out of their apartment at 105 Bank Street up to the Dakota and I got the apartment, which had been a sculptor’s studio built in the garden. It had a 30-foot ceiling with skylights and a spiral staircase up to the roof. That rent was a massive $500 a month. Pilgrims who didn’t know their idol and his wife had moved uptown flocked to my door and left me love letters.
My husband, the artist Stephan Weiss, loved Greenwich Village. He found an amazing industrial building on the corner of Greenwich and Charles Street, which he gutted and then designed and built as his studio. The studio was our calm in the chaos—a private escape. To me, the Village is art, bohemia, beatniks, and freedom. It’s like a little European enclave within the city, with everything human-scaled and no skyscrapers in sight. After Stephan’s death in 2001, his studio became the Urban Zen Center, and so the Village has become my home, too.
Coffee and existentialism at the crossroads of Bleecker and MacDougal, Fred Neil in the bull’s-eye, con-eccentric circles. Left at the corner. Nobody’s, a bar where the satin-and-spangle of the English style intermingle. Kenny’s Castaways, imported from uptown, offering an open-hearted mic. The fortress of the Village Gate, Thelonious and Nina and Tito shaking its walls. The Cafe Au Go Go, where Jimmy (a.k.a. Jimi Hendrix) goes to jam with John Hammond, Jr., and the Blues Project cut their classic live. The Other End, once Bitter, where I’m backing John Braden for six weeks in my own first summer. He has a song called “W. 4th St.”: The train stops / the people rush up the stairs.
My favorite moments in the Village are always with the beautiful sun drifting over the Hudson River. And as I look out, I am taking photos in my mind or with one of my cameras. It’s always great for me to start the day with a beautiful photo and then three hours of tai chi, all these golden moments in the Village.
In the early 1970s, when my guitar store was very small and located on a sleepy block of lower Bedford Street, we had well-known musician customers as well as the occasional clueless walk-in. On a given day, a ragged-looking hippie-type kid walked in, took down a guitar from the display wall and started playing, quite badly. After ten minutes of torture, Susie, my wife at the time, and I were just on the verge of shutting this kid down and showing him the door when in walked Bob Dylan, a sometime regular there. Without saying a word, Bob picked up a guitar and started playing with the kid. They were, in a word, collectively awful, and if it hadn’t been Bob, we would’ve tossed them both, on general principles. They never said a word to each other, just played together, and after about fifteen minutes the kid put down the guitar and left.
At that time, there were three restaurants that I regularly went to because the food was truly delicious and very cheap. The oldest of the three was Louie’s, a bar in Sheridan Square in a building that is no longer standing. Louie’s veal parmigiana was $1.75, and beer was a dime a glass. Another restaurant was the Limelight on Seventh Avenue, which had prix fixe dinners for $1.80, which I think ultimately increased to $2.50. With a delicious three-course dinner, plus coffee, you also got the opportunity to peruse photographs in a gallery provided by the owner of the restaurant.
Then there was the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in Sheridan Square, near the offices of the Village Voice, where the food was superb and even more varied than the others and just as cheap, but not ‘prix-fixe’. The reporters and authors of books, plus the politicians, made it their dinner table away from home. It is no longer there.
Later, when I was mayor, about 1978, a fourth restaurant, the Buffalo Roadhouse, opened on Seventh Avenue. I really loved it, especially during the summer, because it had outdoor space. Its hamburgers and soups have never been equaled, at least for me. I believe the owner wanted to go upscale and changed to French cuisine. It ultimately closed, and I didn’t miss it.
I’m ambivalent about the changes in the East Village. On one hand I have raised kids here who haven’t been mugged, like I was, but it’s also gotten a bit too straight for me. Artists certainly can’t afford to live in our building now. It’s hedge-fund guys who are moving in, so it seems a lot less creative. New York has always marched on, good and bad, and it’s worth remembering not to get all cranky about this. There’s still a lot of gritty charm in our neighborhood.
After 9/11, my husband and I felt drawn to Lower Manhattan. We wanted to help in the rebirth of our city. We began a house hunt, searching from Chelsea to Battery Park but none of the renovated properties we saw appealed to us. We decided to switch gears and view brownstones in need of repair. The moment I walked into the pre-war, multifamily building in the West Village, I felt like I had returned home. I saw our future. I instantly saw how my family would spend our days. I pictured my girls running around doing cartwheels, picked the spot for the Christmas tree, and even decided where I’d drink my morning coffee. Within 24 hours, the place was ours.