West Village History

The West Village is one of the best known villages in the world without being actually one but rather a subsection of the Greenwich Village, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, New York. This area holds a big part of the New York heritage: American Natives were already present before the 1600s, was the initial settlement for the Dutch in New York in the 1700s, home to a flock of immigrants and factories in the 1800s, a bustling center of the Bohemia in the early 1900s and capital of the music, theaters and arts shortly thereafter. It's now a magnet for those trying to get a glimpse of the essence of New York.

The West Village is the westernmost subsection of the Greenwich Village, with its boundaries being the Hudson River to the west and W 14th St to the north and an often debated border on the south and east (either Christopher St or Houston to the south and either Greenwich Avenue or 7th avenue to the east).

Unlike a big part of New York, the West Village doesn't have numbered streets but rather names and they are generally odd-featured and curve (nowhere else you would have W 12th St intersect with W 4th St!). This is because the West Village is much older than the rest of New York.

As early as the 16th century the Natives were present and referred to this land as “Sapokanikan” or “Tobacco Field”, later becoming the “Bossen Bouwerie” or “Farm in the woods” by the Dutch settlers who took over this land.

By 1713, now under the control of the English, this land was officially named ‘Greenwich in Common’ and around 1741 British Adm. Sir Peter Warren laid stone on what is claimed to be the birth place of the Village with his farmhouse in Charles St between Bleecker St and W 4th St. (demolished in the 1860s). The West Village remained as a little English village during most of the 1700 and early 1800’s when it started to grow considerably with its population multiplying by 4 only between 1825 and 1840, as flocks of immigrants came to work on the warehouses, coal and lumber yards located next to the Hudson River and on the manufacturing lofts in the south east corner of the neighborhood.

This influx of Italians, French, Germans, Irish, Polish and other resulted in the construction of multiple residential buildings and pushed out some of the wealthier residents who moved to the upper east side and the new Central Park created in the 1850s and brought a new wave of diverse cultures and traditions who would start changing and shaping the character of the neighborhood.

These new inexpensive apartment houses started attracting a new set of neighbors: young artist, poets, writers and musicians which came everywhere from the world as the universe of the arts gravitated from old Europe into the New World. The Greenwich and West Village started gaining a reputation for Bohemians and housed many of them.

Famous artists like Robert Louis Stephenson, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and, later, Anaïs Nin, Robert Lowell, Horton Foote, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol where all spending time in the neighborhood which by the 1950s had become the epicenter of the Beat movement. Bleecker St was full of small theaters, eighth avenue of art galleries and MacDougall of coffee shops where artists would meet.

Icons like the 10th Street Studio, a modernist concept building which was created exclusively for artists was a catalyst for the area, the Hotel Albert where Mark Twain, White Witman, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock (who lived in Carmine St) and Andy Warhol would all meet where all landmarks of the area. During the 50-70s the village was also magnet for musicians like Bob Dylan (who lived there), Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor some of which would play their music for basket change or just for fun.

With this type of crowd its no wonder that the area is full of anecdotes like when actress Mae West was held on charges of obscenity in what is now the Jefferson Market Library

Many years have gone by but the West Village continues to capture the essence of New York and the imagination of all those thousands who visit it on a daily basis.

By: Salvador V.