A Greenwich Village historian tells us how the bohemian paradise dramatized in the Coen Brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis became what it is today—one of the squarest, priciest neighborhoods in New York.
The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is hardly a sunny, soft-focus nostalgia-fest. It depicts a hardscrabble week in the life of the titular folksinger—a period, sometime in the winter of 1961, during which Davis gets punched in the face by a stranger, nearly freezes, coatless, in the bitter New York cold, and has to beg everyone he knows for a sofa to sleep on. The low winter light captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is lovely, but it’s also as bleak and grey as Davis’s prospects for musical stardom.
And yet, watching the film—a terrific, often hilarious meditation on the desperate sadness of being a nearly great artist—you can’t help wishing that you too were bumming around Greenwich Village in 1961, when the cafes were full of cigarette smoke and folk songs.
Especially when you compare Llewyn Davis’s Greenwich Village to Greenwich Village today—a place where Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs seem to be competing to open the most stores on Bleecker Street and where no one who makes less than $200,000 a year can afford to live.
What happened? For more than a century, Greenwich Village was a bohemian enclave—a cheap, artistic neighborhood where Hart Crane, Willem de Kooning, Isamu Noguchi, Frank O’Hara, Odetta, Jackson Pollock, James Baldwin, and, of course, Bob Dylan, could all live and work. Then, sometime after 1980 or so, everything changed.
To find out why, I called up John Strausbaugh, the author of The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, which came out earlier this year. Excerpts from our conversation:
When did you first go to Greenwich Village?
I grew up in Baltimore. I first visited the Village—actually, it was my first time in New York City—in the winter of 1969-1970. I had just gotten out of high school. A friend of mine was a freshman at Columbia. I came up and stayed with him. And the Village was very Village-y at that point, I must say.
To the extent that if you’re interested at all in the arts, music, and literature in America, you kept circling back to Greenwich Village. So much of it had happened there. So of course I knew about it.
But the first time I saw it, we were just out walking around. It was bitterly cold. It was nighttime. We went into this little joint—and I’m sorry I don’t remember, and I don’t think I knew then, which one it was. It was just like this little club in the Village. They gave us a little table right near the piano. The piano was on a little table above us.
So we’re sitting there drinking our coffee and this great big guy comes out and sits down at the piano and starts playing amazing stuff. And we were like, “Oh my god, that’s Thelonious Monk.”
We had just wandered into this club. I could have touched his shoes. That was an only-in-New-York moment that convinced that at some point I had to live in New York City.
All I’m thinking now is that when I first moved to New York and stumbled into a club in Greenwich Village, I definitely did not see anyone like Thelonious Monk.
When did you do that?
Oh yeah. [Laughs] But you know, I didn’t move here until 1990, and when I did I moved to the Village. And it wasn’t the Village already by then.
Let’s rewind for a minute. What role has Greenwich Village played in American cultural history?
It has played a huge role. On the west side of Manhattan there was a village that eventually became called Greenwich. It was there from the 1600s on. By the time they started to really fill in the grid, in the 1820s, the Village had been there long enough that it could just resist the grid better than the rest of Manhattan, which was mostly farmland and open spaces. It was basically just an accident of history that got preserved.
And it was a magnet for cultural producers. Over time, the Village became what I call a culture engine—a place that attracts people who make culture for all the rest of us. And by putting them together in a very tiny space—a neighborhood that you can walk through in, what, 15 minutes?—it created a lot of opportunities for collaboration among them, and influencing each other. And over a very long period of time, for that kind of bohemian neighborhood, it churned out tremendous amounts of American—and therefore world—culture. It was huge.
This goes back way before the Greenwich Village of Inside Llewyn Davis. Why did it take on that character in the beginning? What was the germ of that culture?
Because the urban grid grew up around it in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, it always was that little bit of a village just kind of oddly stuck to the side of Manhattan. So it always attracted people who were not the businessmen—who were not in New York City to make a ton of money. It always had what became its Ye Olde Greenwich Village look: low density, low buildings, older buildings. That naturally attracts people who aren’t the mover and shaker types. And then there were a couple of institutions—NYU, academies—that attracted students and artists, and gradually over time that developed into the Village. It didn’t really become “Greenwich Village” until real-estate people started marketing it that way as Ye Olde Greenwich Village. And that was not until the 1920s. Before that it was just there—but it always had that oddball character.
Was there an original bohemian? An original scene?
Yes. The first celebrated—and self-celebrated—bohemian scene was in a ratskeller called Pfaff’s. The guy’s name was Charles Pfaff. He was a Swiss-German guy. And it was beer cellar on Broadway. They started hanging out there before the Civil War—1850s. The whole idea of bohemianism was new enough that the Times felt called upon to write a big article explaining it and making fun of them in 1858 or 1859. That’s where Walt Whitman was hanging out. The patrons were identified as bohemians and they did what they could to live up to it. So the Village’s bohemian history probably goes back to, say, 1857.
Hopping forward to the Llewyn Davis era—we kind of look at that as the ultimate romantic Greenwich Village, or at least I do. Was there something special about that time, or was it just one of many Village golden eras?
After World War II, the Village went through an enormous renaissance as the bohemian beatnik art place. All sorts of stuff came out of it. You had Abstract Expressionists coming out of the Village. Avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren are there. A lot of writers are there. The Beats are hanging out there, and eventually attracting the beatniks. And as part of all that there is the folk music scene, which actually has its roots in the Village in the late 1930s. It got quiet in the 1930s, then became pop music in the early 1950s, then got repressed again, because everyone was convinced that folksingers were Communists, so they all get blacklisted. Peter Seeger and the rest of them. And then it has what came to be known as the folk revival in the later 1950s, and that’s the Village where there are coffeehouses door-to-door, every one’s got a folksinger in it, there are hootenannies every night. That’s what attracted Dylan.
And Llewyn Davis. It’s easy to look back on these periods and be nostalgic. But was Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s actually all that great? Or would it be disappointing to us if were to suddenly go back in a time machine?
Both. If you talk to people who lived in the Village at that time, like I did for the book, they are both genuinely nostalgic about it—they romanticize it—but in their calmer moments they also say, “You know, we were all broke. It was cold all winter. We didn’t have any heat. We had cold-water flats. There was a lot about it that wasn’t so great, too.”
But sometimes nostalgia and history do converge, and if you look at that period from the end of the Second World War into (I would argue) the early 1980s, an awful lot of stuff got done there. It was definitely the heart of not just the American avant-garde but the leading edge of all Western art. So a whole lot was going on. It was very different than it is now. You can be nostalgic for that, but it also happens to be true.
That’s a very long period: from the end of World War II to the 1980s. If you’ve witnessed the changes that have happened in New York just over the past 10 years, like I have, it’s very hard to imagine how such a beautiful area resisted gentrification and retained its essential bohemian character for so long.
It’s a good question, and in some ways it didn’t. One of the things I say in the book is that pretty much every generation that misspent its youth there and then grew up and got married and moved out, said it was over by the time they were in their 40s. It did go through its ups and downs. The 1930s was not nearly as active an era as the 1950s. It pulsed.
But the real estate pressures on it were obvious as the early as the 1920s. The Village had had its big bohemian flowering in the 1910s—a couple of years leading up to World War I. That attracted what that kind of neighborhood always attracts: money and interest and press from outside. The rents started going up, and by the 1920s The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor and all these newspapers were saying, “It’s over. That’s the end of Greenwich Village. It’s gotten to be too expensive.”
And from then on, it was a little more expensive. If you were a young artist and you were really broke, you weren’t as likely to move to Greenwich Village as you were to move to the Lower East Side, which stayed much cheaper for much longer. And yet the Village managed to retain its spirit. And it bounced back in a huge way in the second half of the 1940s.
So it did resist. One of the laws of real estate is that once the ball gets rolling it usually moves very quickly. And that’s one of the extraordinary things about the Village: that it managed to hang on as long as it did.
How would you characterize the evolution that the Village has undergone since the period of Llewyn Davis?
It was beginning to lose its cheap-rent factor and its hip factor in the 1960s. The East Village was taking over. At the time, people said the Village was where the beats and the beatniks hung out and the East Village was where the hippies and the rockers hung out. That was pretty much true. The transition was beginning back then.
But after Stonewall, the Village had a big 1970s as the heartbeat of gay America. So it made another comeback. There was tremendous amount going on.
But then AIDS came along, and that was a huge factor not just in ending it as the gay Village, but combined with some other factors, like Ed Koch pushing the real-estate revival of New York City in the 1980s … that’s when the real estate really began to shoot up. No pun intended.
I put the end of the Village’s long run as a bohemian neighborhood at about 1985.
It simply decimated the neighborhood. I interviewed several people who said you would actually see your next-door neighbor die of AIDS, his stuff would be put out on the street, and a lawyer was being shown his space. And the lawyer was going to pay four times what the previous guy had been paying for it, and once you had the lawyer in there, you can start kicking everybody else out and start putting more lawyers in. It’s the beginning of what the survivors from that period called the yuppification of the Village. And then that takes off in the extraordinary housing boom of the late 1990s and 2000s.
People always cite Sex and the City as the nail in the coffin. But you think the real death of the Village came far before Carrie Bradshaw.
Yes. If you look back at, say, 1989, there’s not nearly as much going on as in 1979. Or 1969. Or 1959. There are holdouts. There are clubs that stay open. There are artists who continue to live there—Larry Rivers and stuff. But it’s not the cutting-edge anymore.
How would you describe Greenwich Village now?
One of the most expensive and upscale neighborhoods in New York City, which is saying a lot. In some ways, mostly through historic preservation of the buildings and the streetscapes, it retains the look—and it’s a wonderful look—of the old Greenwich Village. But it’s very hard to find the spirit of the old Greenwich Village there anymore.
A character like Llewyn Davis can’t sneak into the Village in the wintertime with a guitar and no coat and just try to bum his way around anymore.
Not in Manhattan. Maybe in Brooklyn.
You’re right. The money is chasing the art bohemian kid neighborhoods out of Brooklyn with incredible speed now. They’re being pushed out to the sea at this point.
New York has been New York for a long time. There’s always been space for creative people without money to strive and struggle and scrape something together, and that’s always been the engine of the city’s cultural influence in America and in the rest of the world. Why does that no longer seem possible? Why does this wave of gentrification seem so inexorable?
The long answer is that after the big East Coast cities hit their nadir in the 1970s—and it was their nadir in a lot of ways, financially and business-wise, even though it was a great period to be an artist in New York—the political and business leaders of many cities decided the cities needed to be repurposed and reorganized. And they turned them all into these upscale tourist centers and places for people who live in them as though they are tourists. Artists don’t have any place in that. You can import the art now. So it disappears.
Almost everything about being an artist of any kind in America is about cheap rent. Unless you’re Lady Gaga, you’re not making any money in America as an artist. So you need those cheap places to live and work. But those have all disappeared from the island of Manhattan and increasingly from the outer boroughs. And it certainly seems like the bulk of New Yorkers are happy with it this way, and don’t care that there’s very little culture being made in the city anymore.
There’s a tradeoff. It’s a pleasanter place to live.
You can’t deny that it’s cleaner, safer, and nicer.
So where is Greenwich Village now?
I don’t know. There are kids in Brooklyn making things happen, so that counts. I’ve been told there’s a vibrant scene in the ruins of Detroit. I’m willing to believe that.
What about the rest of Brooklyn? Queens? The Bronx? Staten Island? There’s a lot of New York out there that New York magazine never talks about. I wonder if those boundaries will continue to be pushed.
I’ve talked to several younger artists who’ve done the thing of fleeing Williamsburg and Greenpoint and heading out to Flushing and Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant (although they’re now getting priced out of Bed-Stuy). And what they’ve all said to me is that we’re too young to have any nostalgia for Greenwich Village. We have no idea what Greenwich Village used to be like. But we can tell that it was right there. Everybody lived right next door to each other. Everybody was rubbing elbows—and other body parts—all the time. And when you’re in Flatbush and you hear about a party that’s in Greenpoint, it’s an hour-and-a-half to get yourself there, and you can’t hang out forever because you gotta get yourself home.
That part’s not the same. There’s not the same propinquity that there used to be. Manhattan’s a very small, tight, little place. Everybody was living right next door to each. And that made a huge difference. It made for a lot of inspiration and collaboration, and the farther out you fling the artists, the harder it is for them to generate a scene.
That makes a lot of sense.
The other answer you hear is that the digitalization of the world has made a difference. That people don’t feel like they have to live next door to each other because they’re online all the time. But I don’t buy it.
I don’t think that walking down the street and going tip-tap and texting your pal halfway around the world is the same as going into that person’s space and seeing what they’re working on and talking to them. I really think face-to-face makes a huge difference in the way people collaborate with and inspire one another.
Well, this has been a depressing conversation.
[Laughs] I’m sorry. You knew it was going to be.