Into the early 20th century, Greenwich Village was distinguished from
the upper-class neighborhood of Washington Square – based on the major
landmark Washington Square Park or Empire Ward in the 19th century.
Encyclopædia Britannica's 1956 article on "New York (City)"
(subheading "Greenwich Village") states that the southern border of the
Village is Spring Street, reflecting an earlier understanding (today,
Spring Street might be considered the southern boundary of the
neighborhood sometimes called the South Village, though some cite Canal Street as the furthest extent of the South Village). The newer district of SoHo has since encroached on the Village's historic border.
As Greenwich Village was once a rural hamlet,
to the north of the earliest European settlement on Manhattan Island,
its street layout is more haphazard than the grid pattern of the
19th-century grid plan (based on the Commissioners' Plan of 1811).
Greenwich Village was allowed to keep its street pattern in areas west
of Greenwich Lane (now Greenwich Avenue) and Sixth Avenue, which were
already built up when the plan was implemented, resulting in a
neighborhood whose streets are dramatically different, in layout, from
the ordered structure of newer parts of town. Many of the neighborhood's
streets are narrow and some curve at odd angles. In addition, unlike
streets of most of Manhattan above Houston Street, streets in the
Village typically are named rather than numbered. While some of the
formerly named streets (including Factory, Herring and Amity Streets)
are now numbered, even they do not always conform to the usual grid
pattern when they enter the neighborhood. For example, West 4th Street, which runs east-west outside of the Village, turns and runs north, crossing West 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets.
A large section of Greenwich Village, made up of more than 50
northern and western blocks in the area up to 14th Street, is part of a
Historic District established by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The District's convoluted borders run no farther south than 4th Street
or St. Luke's Place, and no farther east than Washington Square East or
Redevelopment in that area is severely restricted, and developers must
preserve the main facade and aesthetics of the buildings even during
Most parts of Greenwich Village comprise mid-rise apartments,
19th-century row houses and the occasional one-family walk-up, a sharp
contrast to the hi-rise landscape in Mid- and Downtown Manhattan.
In the 16th century, Native Americans referred to its farthest
northwest corner, by the cove on the Hudson River at present-day
Gansevoort Street, as Sapokanikan ("tobacco field"). The land was
cleared and turned into pasture by Dutch and freed African settlers in the 1630s, who named their settlement Noortwyck. In the 1630s, Governor Wouter van Twiller farmed tobacco on 200 acres (0.81 km2) here at his "Farm in the Woods". The English conquered the Dutch settlement of New Netherland in 1664 and Greenwich Village developed as a hamlet separate from the larger (and fast-growing) New York City to the south.
It officially became a village in 1712 and is first referred to as Grin'wich in 1713 Common Council records. Sir Peter Warren
began accumulating land in 1731 and built a frame house capacious
enough to hold a sitting of the Assembly when smallpox rendered the city
dangerous in 1739. His house, which survived until the Civil War era,
overlooked the North River from a bluff; its site on the block bounded by Perry and Charles Streets, Bleecker and West 4th Streets, can still be recognized by its mid-19th century rowhouses inserted into
a neighborhood still retaining many houses of the 1830–37 boom.
The oldest house remaining in Greenwich Village is the
Isaacs-Hendricks House, at 77 Bedford Street (built 1799, much altered
and enlarged 1836, third story 1928). When the Church of St. Luke in the Fields was founded in 1820 it stood in fields south of the road (now Christopher Street) that led from Greenwich Lane (now Greenwich Avenue) down to a landing on the North River. In 1822, a yellow fever
epidemic in New York encouraged residents to flee to the healthier air
of Greenwich Village, and afterwards many stayed. The future site of Washington Square was a potter's field
from 1797 to 1823 when 10 to 20,000 of New York's poor were buried
here, and still remain. The handsome Greek revival rowhouses on the
north side of Washington Square were built about 1832, establishing the
fashion of Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue for decades to come.
Well into the 19th century, the district of Washington Square was
considered separate from Greenwich Village.
Greenwich Village is generally known as an important landmark on the map of American bohemian
culture. The neighborhood is known for its colorful, artistic residents
and the alternative culture they propagate. Due in part to the
progressive attitudes of many of its residents, the Village has
traditionally been a focal point of new movements and ideas, whether
political, artistic, or cultural. This tradition as an enclave of avant-garde and alternative culture was established by the beginning of the 20th century, when small presses, art galleries, and experimental theater thrived.
In 1924 the Cherry Lane Theatre was established. Located at 38 Commerce Street it is New York City's oldest continuously running Off-Broadway
theater. A landmark in Greenwich Village’s cultural landscape, it was
built as a farm silo in 1817, and also served as a tobacco warehouse and
box factory before Edna St. Vincent Millay and other members of the Provincetown Players
converted the structure into a theatre they christened the Cherry Lane
Playhouse, which opened on March 24, 1924, with the play The Man Who Ate the Popomack. During the 1940s The Living Theatre, Theatre of the Absurd, and the Downtown Theater movement all took root there, and it developed a reputation as a place where aspiring playwrights and emerging voices could showcase their work.
In 1936, the renowned Abstract Expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hofmann moved his art school
from E. 57th Street to 52 West 9th Street. In 1938, Hofmann moved again
to a more permanent home at 52 West 8th Street. The school remained
active until 1958 when Hofmann retired from teaching.
Off-Off-Broadway began in Greenwich Village in 1958 as a reaction to Off Broadway, and a "complete rejection of commercial theatre". Among the first venues for what would soon be called "Off-Off-Broadway" (a term supposedly coined by critic Jerry Tallmer of the Village Voice) were coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, in particular, the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street, operated by the eccentric Joe Cino,
who early on took a liking to actors and playwrights and agreed to let
them stage plays there without bothering to read the plays first, or to
even find out much about the content. Also integral to the rise of
Off-Off-Broadway were Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, originally located at 321 E. 9th Street and Al Carmines at the Judson Poets' Theater, located at Judson Memorial Church on the south side of Washington Square Park.
In recent days, the Village has maintained its role as a center for
movements that have challenged the wider American culture, for example,
its role in the gay liberation movement. It contains Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn, important landmarks, as well as the world's oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, Oscar Wilde Bookshop,
founded in 1967. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community
Center – best known as simply "The Center" – has occupied the former
Food & Maritime Trades High School at 208 West 13th Street since
1984. In 2006, the Village was the scene of an assault involving seven lesbians and a straight man that sparked appreciable media attention, with strong statements both defending and attacking the parties.
More recent and on-going preservation issues in the Village include: New York University's (NYU) expansion into the neighborhood; St. Vincent’s Hospital’s rebuilding plans; overdevelopment in the Far West Village; and threats to local theaters, including the Provincetown Playhouse, the Yiddish Art Theater, and the Variety Theater.
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