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From the WNYC Archives: Change and Continuity in Greenwich Village

GVSHP is pleased to partner with WNYC on this post that spotlights their archival collection. WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York’s flagship public radio stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, American Public Media, Public Radio International and the BBC World Service, as well as a wide range of award-winning local programming.

"1955 October cover The Village Voice" by 50 Years/50 Covers - Front pages to remember, The Village Voice.
“1955 October cover The Village Voice” by 50 Years/50 Covers – Front pages to remember, The Village Voice.

On October 4, 1959, Edwin Fancher, a co-founder of the Village Voice and Greenwich Village resident, spoke to four student journalists about the state of the Village for the WNYC show Campus Press Conference.  GVSHP sat down with Fancher in 2000 to document his role in the founding of the Voice. You can read his interview transcript here.

I was excited to recently learn of a much earlier interview, when Fancher spoke to four student journalists about the state of the Village for the WNYC show Campus Press Conference on October 4, 1959. At that point, the Voice was not even four years young, and the neighborhood was going through some sea changes. You can access the full audio of the interview here.

The Campus Press Conference conversation includes diverse issues affecting Greenwich Village at the time, such as racketeering, the relationship between local Italian immigrants and Bohemian newcomers, the community’s reaction to interracial and homosexual couples, expansion of New York University, gentrification, and Greenwich Village as an intellectual center. Fifty-five years later, some of the issues of concern in the neighborhood remain strikingly similar, some have evolved, and others are a distant memory. The interview is dated in terms of its language and cultural understanding, particularly as it relates to race and sexuality, but that perspective, to me, only offers a great deal more insight into the time. There are two topics under discussion in the program that I would like to focus on here in particular.

The first is Greenwich Village and change. One of the reporters asks Fancher if Greenwich Village has been experiencing change and whether it is for the better or worse. (You can listen to the audio clip here). Wisely, Fancher explains that Greenwich Village has historically been a neighborhood of great change. When GVSHP talks to residents concerned about new development or the loss of businesses, we often explain that Villagers have always worried about change. A New York Times article from 1902, for instance, notes a difference in the types of residents in the area at this time:

Greenwich Village, that quaint old district of New York. . .   though its history is rich, has within recent years fallen low in the social scale. Italians are now in great part colonizing it-Italians of the laborer order. Even the architectural charm of this district, extending for some blocks below Fourteenth Street, and between Sixth Avenue and the North River, is rapidly going, tenements now replacing the curious old dwelling houses for a half century its feature.

Regulars at the San Remo Café. Writer Jack Kerouac sits on the far right. San Remo Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Almost 60 years later, Fancher notes there is an increase in the development of luxury housing and that the Italian community is dwindling. And although Greenwich Village is a neighborhood that continually experiences change, I do have to agree with Fancher, who worries about the loss of tenement housing and its impact on the character of the neighborhood.

The second topic I would like to explore further is the Village as a cultural center. The reporter asks Fancher about the Village’s reputation as an intellectual center. He responds that in his opinion, the cultural scene of the Village of the 1940s and 50s will come to be known as “a golden era.” He even compares the bohemian character of the 1940s and 50s with that of the 1910s and 20s. (You can listen to the audio clip here)  While I would be loath to make a comparison between the artistic worth of any of those decades, I can imagine that it was easy for Fancher to relate to the cultural breadth and diversity of his own time. As a member of that generation himself, perhaps it is easier for him to identify with Allen Ginsberg than say, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Fancher’s oral history with GVSHP from 2000 notes that he and his Village Voice partner Dan Wolf “were part of what could probably be called a kind of a bohemian culture, focused around the San Remo and Louie’s Bar. We were friends with Jimmy [James] Baldwin and Kerouac and Ginsberg—a whole lot of literary people.” But in many ways, Fancher was right. Young people today often refer to the “iconic Greenwich Village” as that of the mid-century, forgetting those who paved the way two generations earlier.

C.O. Bigelow has stood in this location since 1902. Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 2002.
C.O. Bigelow has stood in this location since 1902. Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 2002.

While the issue of racketeering is a distant memory for the Village, its citizens still worry very much about change and the state of the neighborhood as a place for artists. As a historic preservationist, I worry about insensitive changes to the neighborhood’s historic architecture. As a historian, I think deeply about how different groups have influenced the culture of the neighborhood. But like Fancher, I can see the very positive points in the neighborhood’s current incarnation: enjoying an afternoon spent in the Jefferson Market Garden or an evening at the Cherry Lane Theatre; listening to music at Smalls or having a coffee at Café Reggio; leafing through books at the Strand or shopping for toiletries at C.O. Bigelow. Perhaps for us, this time could be described as a “Golden Age” of the Village as well.

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