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Echoes of Bastille Day in Greenwich Village

On July 14, 1789, the Storming of the Bastille was the galvanizing event that kicked off the French Revolution.  The Bastille was a fortress-prison that held both political prisoners and a cache of weapons.  By storming the oppressive structure, the revolutionaries were not only able to obtain armaments to further their cause, but provide a symbol demonstrating that the people of France would no longer put up with the abuse of the monarchy.  Since the 19th Century, Bastille Day has become the French National Holiday.

Much like the French revolutionaries, the Village has always been a place of radical thought and action.  To honor this watershed event in French history, we thought we’d take a look at a few locations in the Village that, while perhaps not transporting you to Paris, would at least remind you of our barricade-storming compatriots across the Atlantic on Bastille Day.

Jeanne d’ Arc Building (200 14th Street)

Jeanne d’Arc building. Image courtesy of skyscrapercity.com

Located on the upper border of the Village, the Jeanne d’Arc Building is the earliest surviving example of a French Flat building on 14th Street, and one of the earliest in the city.  It was completed in 1889, one hundred years after the French Revolution.  A statue of Jeanne, which was placed on the building over 100 years ago, still remains visible to this day.

Jeanne d’Arc. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Jeanne, a French heroine of the Hundred Years War in the Middle Ages, became a French national symbol in the Napoleonic Era, and is fondly remembered for galvanizing the French common people to fight for national liberation in a time of great political instability.  The figure of Jeanne offers passersby a chance to not only reflect on everything she represents, but is also a great way to engage with an historic architectural style on this Bastille Day in the Village.

Jefferson Market Garden (former site of the Women’s House of Detention, 10 Greenwich Ave.)

Women’s House of Detention

 As the Bastille was an infamous prison in 18th Century France, Greenwich Village too had a prison with some infamy throughout the 20th Century.  The New York Women’s House of Detention stood in the current location of the Jefferson Market Garden.  It was described by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Bay:

“The building, twelve stories high, was built in 1932 as a monument to Modern Penology. The idea was to make it look not like a jail at all but like a new apartment building. There are copper facings with 1930’s modern arch designs on them between the floors. In the place of bars there are windows with a heavy grillwork holding minute square panes. The panes are clouded, like cataracts. Actually, the effect is more like that of the power plant at Yale University, which was designed to resemble a Gothic cathedral, but, in any case, it does not look like a jail.”

Like the Bastille, the Women’s House of Detention also at times housed political prisoners and agitators, including activist Angela Davis, and inmates from both structures would shout out into the streets.  Another, more well-known prisoner of the Bastille at the time of the revolution was the infamous libertine the Marquis de Sade.  Given his reputation, it cannot help to bring to mind Mae West’s famous trial at the adjoining Jefferson Market Courthouse for staging a production of her infamous play “Sex.”

Storming of the Bastille. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Like the Bastille, the Women’s House of Detention was largely hated by the populace in Greenwich Village, and like the Bastille was eventualy demolished, albeit not as a result of any storming by the masses.  The Place de la Bastille is a public plaza in Paris where the former prison once stood, as now the site of the Village prison has become the Jefferson Market Garden.  The Garden is open to the public and is a great place for visitors to reflect on both the social, cultural, and political legacy of the Storming of the Bastille, as well as of the figures once housed in the Women’s House of Detention.


Patisserie Claude (187 W. 4th St.)

Patisserie Clause. Image courtesy of eatupnewyork.com.

About 15 years after the Storming of the Bastille, France was an empire with its own diminutive emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.  The Revolution saw the establishment of the First Republic in 1792, but political instability during that time period lead to its collapse and the briefly lived Consulate.  However, the First Consul was none other than Napoleon, who orchestrated his rise to emperor in 1804 and held the title for about 10 years.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Image courtesy of wikipedia.org.

Yet where does one find Napoleon in the Village? The answer is at our very own authentic Parisian bakery and 2017 Village Award Winner, Patisserie Claude.  As one of the very few independent patisseries left in NYC, Patisserie Claude makes both savory and sweet traditional French pastries like croissants and, of course, napoleons.   Napoleon is regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in history, his rule helped the establishment of more liberal codes of law in France and throughout Western Europe, and his legacy continues to endure throughout history. Much like this little Corsican, Patisserie Claude is a little bakery whose reputation for quality and being a leader in producing fine pastries continued to persist within the Village and beyond.


Washington Square Arch

Washington Square Arch. Photo courtesy of spoilednyc.com

It is only fitting that for a Bastille Day in the Village we compare the enduring monument of the French Revolution with the enduring monument of the Village.  The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.  It was commissioned in 1806 but would not be completed until around 1836.  The Washington Square Arch was built in 1892 in commemoration of George Washington’s inauguration as president in 1789.  There are many parallels that can be drawn between these two arches, including the fact that the latter was modeled after the former.  Before the current marble arch was built and installed in Washington Square, a large plaster and wood memorial arch was erected over Fifth Avenue just north of the park in 1889.

Arc de Triomphe. Photo courtesy of dreameronearth.com

A similar situation happened with the Arc de Triomphe in 1810; though the Arc was still under construction, a wooden mockup of the completed arch was erected to welcome Napoleon back to Paris with his bride Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria.  However, as the Arc de Triomphe will forever serve to represent the ideals, the radical actions, and the far-reaching influence of the French Revolution, the Washington Square Arch similarly serves as a reminder of how the Village has stood and still stands as a testament to bohemia, the avant-garde, and the socio-political history that defines the vibrancy of the neighborhood (the Arch was even the site of a 1917 “Conspiracy” where artists, writers, and radicals got atop the Arch to declare the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square” with the intent of having a neighborhood free from mainstream convention). 

This above guide is not to say that there was no French history in the Village (the South Village was actually at one time known as the Quartier Francaise, and many French restaurants and bakeries still line its streets), but to serve as a way to engage with the spirit of Bastille Day, its legacy and impact, through the history and landscape of the Village.  No matter what Bastille Day means to you, or how you choose to celebrate it, we hope you will keep in mind that the Village and the French Revolution are not too different, as both have influenced social, political, and cultural change, and both have an enduring place in public memory.

There’s much more French history to be found in Greenwich Village, which used to contain a large French immigrant community, if you know where to look. Check out this Off The Grid post for some additional tips and insights.

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