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Explore the South Village’s History


As you likely know by now, the South Village was designated an official New York City historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at the end of December. Part of the landmarks process is the publication of a landmark designation report for the neighborhood by the LPC, which acts as an outline of the significant features and history of the district.

From the development of tenements to the LGBT scene of the nineteenth century, to the development of Off- and Off Off-Broadway Theater, the designation report contains a wealth of information about the social and architectural history of the South Village as well as the individual histories of each building in the district.

Today we thought we would take a look at the part of the report that details the South Village’s contribution as a creative center of the mid-twentieth century folk and rock music scene. Many regard the nexus of that scene to have been Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street.  The report notes:

“The South Village played a critical role in the development of American folk music. In early 1957, Izzy Young opened the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street in a raised tenement storefront where records, books, and sheet music were sold. A square sign, hung on a metal rod, marked the location. [Musician Dave] Van Ronk recalled:

“When Izzy opened that little hole, there was suddenly a place where everyone went, and it became a catalyst for all sorts of things…I must have met hundreds of people there. It became so much like a club that there was a sort of running joke that Izzy never actually sold anything.”

Some of the great historic images found in the LPC's South Village Historic District designation report. (l.) The Bitter End on Bleecker Street; (r.) The Fat Black Pussycat on Minetta Street.
Some of the great historic images found in the LPC’s South Village Historic District designation report. (l.) The Bitter End on Bleecker Street; (r.) The Fat Black Pussycat on Minetta Street.

Young is likely to have chosen a location on MacDougal Street because it was close to Washington Square, where folk singers frequently gathered on Sundays during the 1950s, as well as the Sullivan Street Playhouse, 181 Sullivan Street (altered beyond recognition), where the New York Folk Singers Guild presented concerts.

A contributor to Sing Out!, a folk music magazine, Young helped organize the Friends of Old Time Music, to raise awareness of rural musicians, and the Right to Sing Committee, when public officials attempted to ban performances in Washington Square. He also helped start Gerde’s Folk City in 1960. Originally located at 11 West 4th Street (demolished), it moved to 130 West 3rd Street in 1970.

Bob Dylan spent considerable time in the back room of the Folklore Center, which he later described as the “citadel of Americana folk music…it was like an ancient chapel, like a shoebox sized institute…It had a wide plate-glass window where records and instruments were displayed.”

You can read more about the music scene and so much more in the designation report here.

If you want even more South Village stories, you can take a look at GVSHP’s original South Village landmark proposal by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart here; our report The Italians of the South Village by historian Mary Elizabeth Brown here; or the State and National Register of Historic Places listing for the South Village which GVSHP commissioned and submitted here.

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