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Rejecting The Picturesque: The Different Groups That Called Greenwich Village Home Megan Messana

By Megan Massana   Sarah Apmann is the director of research and preservation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The...

By Megan Massana

 

Sarah Apmann is the director of research and preservation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The organization was founded in 1980 and has since worked to preserve the cultural and architectural integrity of various neighborhoods in lower Manhattan, including Greenwich Village, East Village, NoHo, Meatpacking District and South Village.

Apmann herself does the historic research associated with the buildings in the areas – almost 7000 of them – and also monitors the landmarks, which is every building located within a historic district.

We discussed the evolution of Greenwich Village and a bit of its history as the home to the LGBTQ+ rights movement, artists and, eventually, young urban professionals, and how that coincided with much of the crime that took place there. Greenwich Village has a bit of a bohemian reputation, as well as reputation for being a bit glamorous, depending on which block you were on. Originally home to many middle to upper-class residents, it was not uncommon for lavish parties to take place in many residencies or clubs and bars in the neighborhood, and even though parts of the area eventually housed lower-income artists and immigrants, it was and, to a degree, still is known for its party scene.

Alongside all of this was a world of crime, which permeated almost all of New York City and did not discriminate against the Village. However, that did not deter people from moving to the area nor did it stop the artistry or the LGBTQ+ rights movement from taking place. Apmann and I talked about how these groups all came to live in the same place at the same time.

 

Q: I wanted to talk a little bit specifically about 14 West 10th Street. I know that building has some of its own history, most famously that Mark Twain lived there for one year and there was the unfortunate Joel Steinberg murder [case] that took place there in ’87. It’s called “The House of Death” and is apparently haunted by all of these spirits and is one stop of many of a few haunted tours of New York. I was curious what you thought of that, if you kind of like it or if you think it’s a bad thing.

 

A: I think it’s all part of the lore. You know, that’s the Village. That’s just one spot, you can also go down to Bond Street and there’s “The Murder on Bond Street.” This is a very multifaceted history. I think people would so much rather hear salacious details about their houses than that Mark Twain lived there, frankly. There was a map that was done of brothels in New York City, 19th century brothels, and people went nuts over that! So, I think it just adds to it. It’s not like out in the suburbs where you’d shy away from the house where the murder took place.

 

Q: Looking through past residents of that block in particular, at least at one point the Village was upper middle-class or lower upper-class in terms of incomes. How did that change?

 

A: When it was first being developed, what was typical was speculators would come in and build rows of houses or a few houses and then rent them. And they were typically rented to [artisans]. In that area [of West 10 Street] it would typically be more merchants. Then as wealthier people moved out of the area and immigrants came in, buildings that used to be single family homes got chopped up or knocked down all together and tenements were built.

 

Q: What I found interesting about West 10th Street was that it seemed to stay a middle-class block throughout all of it. Any idea why that one block stayed that way?

 

A: I don’t think it’s just that one block. The area that was north of Washington Square Park – I found that that area turned over much later than other areas in the Village or even in the East Village which turned over more quickly. They became tenementized later, and by that time you’re getting into the 1920s when there’s renewed interest in living in the Village and it was marketed to artists, but these artists couldn’t afford these new buildings. And it was the middle-class young professionals who responded to that marketing and started to move in.

 

Q: There have been a few notorious murders that took place in the Village. How does that, in your opinion, tie into the other narratives, which are also true, of it being the founding place of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and all the artists who lived there and it being this overall accepting place for people?

 

A: I’ve been delving into the artist’s enclave in the 1950s that was around East 10th Street, and it was kind of interesting because East 10th Street was really run down at the time, like between 3rd and 4th [Avenues]. And it was appealing because it was really anti-picturesque, and in the 1950s the artists were rejecting [the picturesque]. So that section of East 10th Street was appealing to them because of that. And if you’re looking at artists from the end of the 19th Century into the early 20th century, they had different reasons for the appeal here. Usually it was low rent.