A 79-year old book on Greenwich Village still a valuable resource
For those familiar with the history of Greenwich Village, the name of author Jane Jacobs is quite familiar. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is well known as revolutionary to the study of urban planning. There is, however, another book just as revolutionary that is a must for researchers of the neighborhood, and one I often recommend to those looking for more information about the people who have made the neighborhood home in the twentieth century. Greenwich Village: 1920-1930: A Comment on American Civilization in the Post-War Years is to the study of cultural history what Jane Jacob’s Death and Life is to the fields of planning and historic preservation.
Written in 1935 by historian Caroline F. Ware along with a team of researchers, Greenwich Village: 1920-1930 was an early study in the experience of the working class and immigrants. Ware took two years of leave from her professorial duties at Vassar to complete the book. She and a team of researchers set up an office on Jones Street.
While the book was commissioned by Columbia University’s University Council, the research was greatly aided with the cooperation of Greenwich House, the settlement house founded in 1902 by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. The book explored the diverse community of the Village at the time, including the neighborhood’s different ethnic groups, businesses, and a group Ware terms “Villagers,” people who repudiated the values of their upbringing and sought to bring a new value system to their lives. A map included in the book’s first edition lays of the boundaries of the study area quite similarly to what we here at GVSHP would consider the boundaries today: from 14th Street in the north, the Hudson River to the west, Houston Street to the south, and Broadway to the east.
The book uses many sources that current social and labor historians would be quite familiar with, but at the time were certainly innovative. School enrollment records, church membership records, tax assessment records (to understand the value of residences where different ethnic groups lived), records of family welfare agencies, and interviews with the local population were tabulated. Census records allowed the researchers to collect information on ethnicity, school enrollment, and even the proportion of children to women of child-bearing age. The data researched and presented in the book is a veritable gold mine of information.
Other scholars have explored the work’s central idea that Greenwich Village represented a microcosm of American society following World War I and I will leave it to them to critique Ware’s thesis and methodology. I will also leave out any criticisms that only come from knowledge we have gained about methodology through the extensive cultural histories that have been written since. I will add that this volume is a first to advance the study of regular folk, a practice that only took hold within the academy beginning in the 1970s. It presents a wealth of data on the people who made Greenwich Village home in a time of relative calm before the upheavals of the Great Depression and offers a road map for researchers looking to uncover data about the people of a community today.
A first edition copy of Greenwich Village: 1920-1930, along with many other books on the neighborhood, is available for researchers in the Greenwich Village Society library. GVSHP’s extensive resources page can also direct those looking to begin their research on the neighborhood.