December is South Village Month – join us in celebrating this vibrant neighborhood all month long!
Postwar America in the 1950s through the early 1960s experienced the birth of a movement and style that opposed both government and authority. America’s culture of conformity during that post-war period bred a cultural renaissance that importantly included the Beat poets and writers. “The Beats” stood for many things; individuality, freedom of expression, and liberation from stifling traditions that they believed held society in a vice. Initially, those at the forefront of this cultural revolution found one another, and their audiences, at the edges of society, and it is no surprise that the bohemian lifestyle of the South Village was a beacon for many. Although it may seem like an entirely different world now, some of the South Village establishments that birthed their creative spark are still in existence. Here are just a few!
Caffe Reggio at 119 MacDougal Street
Caffe Reggio has always been an avant-garde hangout for artists in our neighborhoods. It’s the oldest café in the area and holds the distinction of being the first place in America to serve cappuccinos. Ginsberg and Kerouac were known to hang out there frequently during their days at Columbia University. Gregory Corso would later join them. Caffe Reggio opened its doors in 1927. You will be hard-pressed to find an establishment in New York City that has survived for as long as 96 years! If those walls could talk…..
The Bitter End at 147 Bleecker Street
Opened by impresario Fred Weintraub in 1961, The Bitter End began as a coffee house that attracted artists and audiences of all ages because it didn’t originally have a liquor license. The Bitter End evolved into a major launching pad for new talent. Some of the artists who performed there during its halcyon days include Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, and Simon and Garfunkel. The Bitter End once staged folk “hootenannies” every Tuesday and now calls itself “New York’s oldest rock club”. Beat Poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac often did readings at The Bitter End. The Bitter End won Village Preservation’s coveted Village Award in 2019.
Le Figaro Cafe at 184 Bleecker Street
Interior of Le Cafe Figaro from our Historic Image Archive. From the Riccardo Spina Collection, circa 1970.
In the heart of the South Village in the heyday of the beatnik era in the 1960’s, the coffeehouse, Le Figaro Café, was the place to be. It was frequented by the beat writers, musicians of the time, including Lou Reed, playwright/actor Sam Shepard, who once worked there as a barista when he first came to New York, and scores of people wearing black berets. Opened in 1957 and named after the French daily newspaper of the same name, the space was a go-to for the beat generation until it closed in 2008. Rumor has it that Kerouac started jazz poetry nights here back in his day and that famous stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce would stop by after his sets at the nearby Gaslight Café, which shut down in 1971. Even Bob Dylan was spotted working on his first album on-premises!
The folk musician Dave Van Ronk wrote in his 2005 memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” describing the winter of 1960 and 1961:
“The tourist avalanche of the next summer was undreamed of, and on the streets or in the joints, you hardly saw a soul you didn’t know. The afternoons were best. Sitting at a window table at the Figaro, playing chess, gossiping with friends, or just watching the snow, one felt an almost rural sense of peace.”
Le Figaro Cafe shuttered in 2008 but reopened in 2021 as Figaro Cafe with a modernized interior and has since drawn a big local crowd.
Cafe Wha? at 115 MacDougal Street
The original Cafe Wha? remains at 115 MacDougal Street on the corner of Minetta Lane. In the early 1960s cash-strapped artists would take their chances at the open mic. It was here that Bob Dylan made his New York debut, and Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the cadre of beats would perform. Cafe Wha? continued to attract artists and musicians long after the beat and folk scenes gave way to rock’n’roll. A notice on the door catalogues just a few of the famous names who played here: Jimmi Hendrix, Ritchie Havens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and the Velvet Underground. It is still a popular music venue, with a house band playing five nights a week.
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.