Greenwich Village is a community rich with Jewish history, especially within the area that in 1969 was designated as one of the city’s first and largest historic districts. That legacy manifests in so many ways, including several incredibly prominent elected leaders of the 20th century who called Greenwich Village home. We’ll take a look at three of them today, but you can also learn more about local Jewish history and many other areas of interest on our interactive Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now map.
Bella Abzug (1920–1998), known as “Battling Bella,” was the first Jewish congresswoman from New York (serving three terms starting in 1971), the first Jewish woman candidate for New York City mayor and for U.S. senator from New York, and a leader of the Women’s movement nationally. Abzug moved with her husband and daughters to 37 Bank Street in the 1960s, living here for more than two decades before moving to 2 Fifth Avenue. She, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Her first successful run for Congress in 1970 used the slogan “A Woman’s Place is in the House — the House of Representatives.” She was known as much for her ardent opposition to the Vietnam War and her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and the impeachment of President Nixon as for her flamboyant hats.
In 2018, the corner of Bank Street and Greenwich Avenue was conamed Bella Abzug Way to honor her years of service.
Fiorello La Guardia
Fiorello La Guardia (1882–1947) was a three-term New York City mayor, often cited as the city’s best mayor (and arguably both its first Italian-American and first Jewish mayor), who championed political reform and immigrant rights, and led New York City through the Great Depression and World War II. Standing just over 5 ft tall, Fiorello (Italian for “little flower”) LaGuardia was every bit a fighter for progressive causes, and served the people of New York City both in Congress and as mayor. “It makes no difference,” he once said, “if I burn my bridges behind me – I never retreat.”
La Guardia was born on December 11, 1882, at 177 Sullivan Street (formerly 7 Varick Place), a building that has long since been demolished. His father, Achille La Guardia, was an Italian immigrant and non-practicing Catholic; his mother, Irene Coen, was a Jewish immigrant from the Italian city of Trieste in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Fiorello was raised Episcopalian.) After getting married, Fiorello and his young wife moved into a home at 39 Charles Street.
From there in 1916 La Guardia successfully ran to represent Greenwich Village in Congress, and developed a reputation as an outspoken reformer. In 1919 he resigned his congressional seat, and defeated Tammany Hall candidate Robert Moran for the office of the president of the New York City Board of Alderman. Three years later, he returned to Congress representing a section of East Harlem with a strong Italian presence. In Congress, he became a leading liberal reformer championing such causes as labor reform, reduction of immigration quotas, progressive income taxes, increased big business oversight by the government, and national employment insurance for the unemployed.
In 1929, he tried and failed to become mayor of New York, losing to incumbent Democrat Jimmy Walker (another Greenwich Village Historic District resident), and in 1932 lost his congressional seat. La Guardia came back in 1933 to be elected to the city’s top job as a Republican after Walker was forced out of office amid a corruption scandal.
His time as the mayor spanned from 1934 to 1945. During his tenure, he increased the efficiency and honesty of the city’s government. In 1938, a new city charter had been adopted and La Guardia filled the board of magistrates and virtually every other long-term appointive office, effectively eradicating the power of Tammany Hall. A New Dealer and favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, La Guardia was able to secure large amounts of federal money for public works in New York. Working with Robert Moses before demolishing whole neighborhoods for “urban renewal” became the core of his modus operandi, La Guardia also made great strides in improving New York’s then-insufficient infrastructure. He was the city’s first three-term mayor, but refused to seek a fourth.
In his honor, West Broadway north of Houston Street, near his birthplace, was renamed La Guardia Place after his death. A statue of the Little Flower was added in the 1990s by the Friends of La Guardia Place to further commemorate the mayor and his service.
Edward I. Koch (1924–2013) served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, following terms as Greenwich Village’s congressman, city councilmember, and Democratic district leader. While Koch was neither New York’s first nor last Jewish mayor, he saw himself in many ways as a spokesperson for the Jewish community, though not all of New York’s Jews agreed.
Early in his career as district leader, after defeating Carmine DeSapio in 1963, Koch endeared himself to Village constituents with his strong opposition to “police brutality, air pollution, sidewalk narrowing, the bulldozer approach to urban renewal, the invasion of the Village by New York University, and the invasion of downtown by the Lower Manhattan Expressway.” He served on the Council for two years starting in 1967, then in Congress from 1969 to 1977. In 1977, he defeated incumbent Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, and Bella Abzug (see above) to become the city’s 105th mayor.
Koch was typically either loved or hated throughout his years as mayor. He helped guide the city out of its fiscal crisis of the 1970s, gladhanding his way through the streets with his catchphrase of “How’m I doin’?,” and he reorganized the city’s political environment by assembling a governing coalition that at times included liberals, conservatives, and moderates. Koch received 75% of the vote in his first reelection in 1981, the first and only New York City mayor to win endorsement on both the Democratic and Republican party tickets, and was re-elected again in 1985. However, his never-great relationship with the city’s African-American community took a greater slide in the late 1980s, which partially caused his 1989 primary loss. (He also lost the 1982 gubernatorial primary to past foe Cuomo.) Much of his early base of Greenwich Village liberals was also dismayed by what they considered his poor reaction to the AIDS crisis.
Koch called several spots throughout the current historic district home, including 81 Bedford Street, 72 Barrow Street, and 14 Washington Place. He passed away in 2013 after living several decades at 2 Fifth Avenue. In 2011, the City Council voted to rename the bridge between Manhattan and Queens the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in his honor, but the full name still has yet to take hold with the public.
To see dozens more sites connected to Jewish history within the Greenwich Village Historic District, visit our Greenwich Village Historic District Map + Tours here, and be sure to click on the dropdown menu for the alphabetical listing of tours. On that tour you’ll find the former homes of great baseball players, French Prime Ministers, spies, civil libertarians, and many more, as well as the cemetery of the first and oldest Jewish congregation in North America. Other tours you can explore include African American History, Artists’ Homes and Haunts, Wood Frame Houses, Transformative Women, Firehouses, Most Charming Spots, and many more.