On July 31, 1923, the New York Times featured an article about an injunction against seven places of business located in the South Village that served alcohol against the strictures of the Volstead Act, or Prohibition. The article refers to “anti-Bohemian” sentiment by neighbors resulting in tip-offs to the authorities about the speakeasies. As GVSHP and the community awaits the Landmarks Preservation Commission decision about designation of a South Village Landmark District, we wanted to take some time to explore the South Village during Prohibition.
The South Village, traditionally defined as the area south of Washington Square Park and West 4th Street (east of 7th Avenue South), was home to many intellectuals, writers, and artists who embraced ideas and politics counter to the prevailing culture, or Bohemians. But the area was also inhabited by Irish and Italian immigrants and a large African-American population as well. The names on some of the businesses that were part of the injunction is revealing: Jimmie Kelly’s and Bertolotti’s speak to the neighborhood’s immigrant demographic.
The consumption of alcohol was a natural part of many immigrant cultures that clashed with the new Prohibition law. Village Bohemians, who were often at intellectual and cultural odds with the mainstream, frequented the speakeasies that flourished in the neighborhood. But the sheer number of speakeasies across New York City during Prohibition demonstrates that alcohol was consumed during this time period by more than just immigrants and Bohemians. The New-York Historical Society estimates that there were between 20,000 and 100,000 speakeasies in New York during prohibition, with clubs located across the City.
Learn more about the neighborhood’s architecture and culture in this report by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart and this report about the Italian South Village by historian Mary Elizabeth Brown. You can also learn more about immigrant and Bohemian Greenwich Village on GVSHP’s website.