This past Monday evening, many of us gathered on MacDougal Street near Bleecker for the unveiling of a bronze plaque honoring the San Remo Café. The San Remo Café operated in this corner location for many years and was a home of sorts for so many of Greenwich Village’s most creative people.
One of those who frequented the San Remo Café was author and Greenwich Village resident James Baldwin, who would have turned 89 years old tomorrow. Although born and raised in Harlem, Baldwin moved to the Village at a young age in the early 1940’s, and spent several years here before moving to Paris.
As is the story with so many others, Baldwin felt at home in the Village, where he was able to meet and interact with other writers and artists. He had lived uptown in a strict religious family and knew that he needed to get away in order to survive. Luckily, he found a new home in Greenwich Village.
Although his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, was published in 1955 when Baldwin was living in Paris, it contains remembrances of the time when he first moved to the Village. There can be little doubt that Baldwin’s arrival in Greenwich Village coincided with his own embracing of his sexuality, and being able to meet other gay men, such as painter Beauford Delaney, who became a mentor to the young Baldwin, would surely have allowed him to feel comfortable enough to then explore his talent as a writer. Returning to New York from Paris, Baldwin lived at 81 Horatio Street from 1958 to 1963.
The fact that so many creative people came to live and work in Greenwich Village is in itself remarkable, but I am always reassured to know that so many other artists and writers were influenced by those whose center was Greenwich Village, and places like the San Remo Café. The prolific writer Toni Morrison claims that James Baldwin was an inspiration to her, and helped her realize her own potential as a writer.
And so it goes. Countless writers, painters, musicians and other artists will tell you that they were influenced by others who came before them, others whose legacies are the heart and soul of Greenwich Village.
So as we gathered last Monday on the corner that was once the home of the San Remo Café, we paid honor not only to that special place, but also to the many men and women who spent time there, sipping espressos and cappuccinos long before most Americans even knew those words. We imagined what it was like to walk into a neighborhood café and see people like Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal and James Baldwin sitting at the tables, and realized how richer our lives are now for their contributions.