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Celebrating the Origins of the South Village

December is South Village Month – join us in celebrating this vibrant neighborhood all month long!

In December 2016, following a multi-year advocacy campaign spearheaded by Village Preservation, the Sullivan Thompson Historic District was landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. This dozen-block, 175-building district designation was the culmination of a campaign formally begun by Village Preservation ten years prior, which had earlier also resulted in the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, designated in 2010; the South Village Historic District, designated in 2013; the listing of the larger National Register of Historic Places “South Village Historic District”; and several individual landmark designations on MacDougal and Sullivan Streets.

Map showing the various South Village areas for designation.

If this all looks and sounds a bit complicated, it’s because the naming and delineation of precise boundaries for historic districts can be a somewhat convoluted process, sometimes having more to do with political motives than the actual history of a neighborhood’s geographic development. The “South Village” has really always been integral to Greenwich Village since its earliest phases of evolution, and one might argue that these components of the neighborhood should have been included in the original Greenwich Village Historic District designation of 1969. The north edge of the designated South Village Historic District abuts Washington Square Park, and its borders contain many streets that most would deem essential to the broader definition of “Greenwich Village” – consider Cornelia Street, Downing Street, Minetta Lane, the stretch of Bleecker between 6th Avenue and LaGuardia Place… the list of quintessential Village streets within these southern bounds goes on.

In studying and learning more about this portion of the neighborhood, however, I’ve come to discover some of the things that are special about and particular to the South Village. Today, the collection of buildings and streets that comprise the South Village are a sort of microcosm of the broader Greenwich Village it sits within. The South Village holds some of the area’s oldest extant buildings, its longest-standing small businesses, and so many layers of immigration, local migration, and cultural history. We can trace these stories through the structures and streetscapes that are now thankfully protected due to their landmark designation status.

L-R: 127-131 MacDougal Street. Image via 2013 LPC South Village Historic District Designation Report

Greenwich Village harkens back to the late 1700s and turn of the century, when people moved to the area seeking refuge from the overcrowded city which, at the time, was primarily located south of modern-day Canal Street. The South Village retains some of the oldest extant buildings in the area, including dozens of Federal and Greek Revival style row houses that were built from the 1820s to the 1850s. The origins of this part of the neighborhood can also be seen in the unusual, off-kilter street patterns, which reflect both remnants of the pre-1811 grid and later changes over time. As a result, the South Village’s many small parks and plazas, oddly shaped buildings, and variation in street widths are some of its most recognizable defining features.

Renaissance Revival style tenement building at 218-220 Thompson Street, between Bleecker and West 3rd Streets, designed by Bernstein & Bernstein and built in 1904. Photo courtesy New York Times.

Waves of immigration in the late 19th century and into the 20th century led to the development of larger tenement buildings with intricate architectural details. Their cornices, projecting stone elements, and ironwork can still be found throughout the district and are emblematic of it. By the late 1800s, many German and Irish immigrants called the South Village home, and the area concentrated around Thompson, Carmine, and Grove Streets became known as “Little Africa,” due to the substantial Black population that lived and worked there during this time period.

Café Figaro at the southeast corner of MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, ca. 1970. Photo by Riccardo Spina, from Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

By the early 20th century, the area had become predominantly Italian. Cafes like Dante (est. 1915), Reggio (est. 1927), and Figaro (est. 1957) all remain or have recently re-opened as interpretations of their original forms. Other industrial and commercial structures also began to be constructed in the neighborhood during early 1900s. Following these shifts, as Andrew S. Dolkart discusses in his Village Preservation-commissioned 2006 report The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation, “the final change to the street pattern occurred between 1933 and the late 1950s when narrow Houston Street was widened, cutting off the north side of the South Village blocks between West Broadway and Sixth Avenue. These wide boulevards are now defining elements of the neighborhood.”

While this first century of the South Village’s history gave the neighborhood its physical form, the second century contributed many additional layers of historic significance: Bohemian and Beatnik culture, political movements, jazz and folk music, and visual artistic expression, all thrived here, and we’ll continue to explore these themes throughout South Village Month.

There is so much more to discover about the South Village. Follow along all month as we honor and highlight the many contributions of the neighborhood.

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