When the Village was Red: Celebrating the Legacy of the Paris Commune in our Neighborhoods
On March 18, 1871, the Paris Commune began — a three-month-long worker-led insurrection in Paris and experiment in self-governance. On that day, workers, anarchists, communists, and artisans took over the city, and began to re-organize it according to the principles of association, self-determination, and justice for all oppressed members of society.
Notably, among the so-called Communards who participated in the uprising, many were women. The Versailles press wrote that such women were “seduced by the theories of socialism developed in clubs and public reunions, thinking that a new era was going to open itself… they are throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the revolutionary movement…”
As scholar David P. Jordan wrote, “unopposed and swept along by a ‘human torrent,’ workers occupied all the administrative offices and government buildings… the mayor, Jules Ferry, fled the Hôtel de Ville [the site of executive governmental power in Paris at the time]. Paris was in the hands of the commune.”
While in power, the communal government advocated for womens’ rights, universal free education, established a radical artists collective called Le Féderation des Artistes, and much more.
The Commune only lasted for seventy-two days before it was brutally crushed by the Versailles government, in what is now known as Le Sémaine Sanglante (or, the Bloody Week). Communards were executed en masse, and many were deported to the French territory of New Caledonia or found themselves in exile elsewhere. Due in part to the many who fled retribution or were forced to leave after the Commune was crushed, its ideas spread far and wide in the decades that followed. Many scholars write on what is called the “afterlives” or “reactivations” of the Paris Commune — from the worker-led Mexican Zapatista revolution, to the urban insurrection of Occupy Wall Street and associated Occupy movements. As Kristin Ross author of the wonderful study of the Commune entitled Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, states, “the shockwaves of [the Bloody Week] propelled the hard-pressed Communard exiles and refugees into far-reaching new political networks and ways of living… creating networks and pathways of survival, reinvention and political transmission.”
One of the most prominent places in which the Communards created new communities, and ways to survive, was in our very own Greenwich Village — in the area just south of Washington Square, which was once known as New York’s “French Quarter.”
By the later 19th century, this area was already considered to be the center of New York’s “bohemia,” and was teeming with multicultural communities. Other waves of immigration had created ethnic enclaves downtown, including the German community of Kleindeutschland and the Irish neighborhood of Five Points. In the “Quartier Français,” cafés and restaurants nurtured ever-growing communities of French artists, writers, and leftists activists in the wake of the Commune.
About eight years after the destruction of the Commune and the execution and deportation of the Communards, a journalist in Scribner’s Monthly wrote:
“I CONFESS to finding no little pleasure in lazy explorations of the region that lies west of Broadway, south of Washington Square, and north of Grand street. This is the Quartier Francais of New York… The commonplace, heterogeneous style of the buildings, and the unswerving rectangular course of the streets are American, but the people are nearly all French. French, too, is the language of the signs over the doors and in the windows; and the population is of the lowest and poorest class. The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here….There are secret meetings in obscure little cafés, into which strangers seldom enter; where the last movements of the Nihilists are discussed… over draughts of absinthe and more innocent beer.”
The writer also describes the manual labor trades taken on by these French immigrants: “Mademoiselle Berthe, with her little sisters, fabricates roses and violets out of muslin and wax in the high attics of the tenement houses. Madame Lange, with her arms and neck exposed, may be seen ironing snowy linen in front of an open window. Here is Triquet, le charcutier; Roux, le bottier; Malvaison, le marchand de vin; Givac, le charcutier Alsacien, and innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner vin compris,may be had for the veriest trifle.”
From the 1870s to the 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in this area, according to the blog Ephemeral New York. “Bakeries, butchers, cafés, shops, and ‘innumerable basement restaurants,’ occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.”
The broader community may have categorized the Parisian exiles as “political refugees of dangerous proclivities,” or as “having a share in the blazing terrors of the Commune… in all their wanderings they had carried the spirit of revolution with them and spouted death to despots over their glasses of absinthe in cellar cafés.” Another Scribners article notes that at the Taverne Alsacienne on Greene Street, ex-Communards “gathered around the tables… most of them without coats, the shabbiness of their other garments lighted up by a brilliant red bandana kerchief or a crimson over-shirt.” (Wearing red accents or accessories was a common practice of Communards during March-May 1871, as a way of demonstrating one’s commitment to socialist revolution.) The community was boisterous, its members frequently drinking “wine, vermouth, and greenish opaline draughts of absinthe… their eyes brighten and their tongues are loosened.”
One of the most notable sites of the “old Bohemia of the French Quarter” south of Washington Square was the Restaurant du Grand Vatel on Bleecker Street, where Parisian exiles mingled with American artists and authors. In fact, an eighth anniversary celebration of the bloody revolution of March 18, 1871 was held here. The celebratory scene, which involved, “grand festival, banquet, ball, and artistic tombola,” led the Scribners journalist to conclude, “the Restaurant du Grand Vatel has some queer patrons.”
Another important echo of the Communard’s legacy in our neighborhoods was the Paris Commune bistro at 99 Bank Street. The restaurant originally opened on Bleecker Street in 1979 and relocated to Bank Street after a forced eviction—eventually closing in the early 2000s. It was a thriving and well-loved neighborhood gathering spot in the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s, run by the French chef Hugo Uys; the New York Times called it a “quintessential old West Village restaurant.” Its red interior accents and festive, communal atmosphere carried on the legacy of both 1871 Paris and the nineteenth-century French Quarter.
Interested in learning more about the afterlives of the Paris Commune in our neighborhoods? Be sure to check out our upcoming event on April 7th, with the scholar J. Michelle Coghlan, When the Village Was Red: Radical New York & the Paris Commune on its 150th Anniversary!