One of the delights of working in the field of historic preservation is getting to regularly dig into old image archives, where unique, wonderful, and fleeting glimpses into the past await, captured from the perspectives of individuals who lived and worked in these neighborhoods.
Riccardo Spina, whose family first arrived in Greenwich Village from Italy in 1890, captured the spirit of the Village in the 1970s and ‘80s through his camera lens. Spina’s passion for photography began as a teenager, while living at 173 Bleecker Street, and then 225 Sullivan Street. He subsequently went on to study photography at Parsons School of Design. Now a resident of the Netherlands, Spina enjoys reflecting on his time in Greenwich Village, and has shared these photographs with us, offering a personal view into our neighborhoods during a period of immense change.
The Riccardo Spina Collection in Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive contains shots of small businesses, parades, architectural treasures, and everyday slices of life during this period. Overall, it is a time capsule that contains stunning visuals of day-to-day life in the Village in the mid- to late-twentieth century.
Let’s delve into some of the gems to be found within the collection:
Le Figaro Café, at the southeast corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets, was a popular haunt of the Beat Generation and beyond, frequented by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and many others over the years, until its doors were finally shuttered in 2008. Spina worked in the cafe for a time, and his images offer both exterior and interior views into this historic venue.
In 2021, this spot was reinvented as “Café Figaro,” a modern take on the original. The iconic striped awnings have returned, and the sidewalk has been activated with marble bistro tables and woven chairs, reminiscent of a Parisian café.
Photography can offer an opportunity to see familiar buildings from a new perspective, such as in this shot taken by Spina from his fire escape at 225 Sullivan Street. The alternating arched and straight terra cotta window surrounds of 240 Sullivan Street across the way are visible here from a viewpoint that is not perceived at street level.
Sometimes, if you stop to really take in a building, you notice that it doesn’t look quite right. A portion of the building may be mismatched with the rest, an indication that, perhaps, that piece was added at a later date, by a different architect, or to serve a specific new purpose. A question comes to mind–how did it come to be this way? Here, Spina’s photograph hints at a plausible answer: the later addition seen at the base of 70 Greenwich Avenue was constructed to accommodate a diner. Today, it has been painted to better blend in with the earlier building, and simply becomes a part of the florist’s storefront around the corner.
How special to have this memorialized view of Jefferson Market Library from 1978, the full west façade visible in a way it no longer is now, as the temporary chain link fence seen here was replaced with decorative cast iron enclosing a lush garden (the planting of which had begun in 1975, three years before this photo was taken, with the young trees not yet nearly as tall as they are today). Note, also, the payphone booth in the foreground, once so common in our streetscapes.
And then there are the oh-so-familiar views, like this residential block that remains largely unchanged to this day–thanks primarily to its landmarked status as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District–aside from the twentieth-century cars and Oscar-the-Grouch-esque trash cans.
Click here to view the full Riccardo Spina collection.
Interested in donating your own images? Click here.