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Posted by on Jun 8, 2014 in Countries, Urban, USA | 12 comments

Things to do in New York: The counter culture of the Greenwich village

New York is so much more than the statue of Liberty or Times Square. Things to do in New York: The counter culture and Bohemia of the Greenwich village 

New York city is one of the most interesting cities in the world. It’s filled with amazing stories of dreams and struggles… It revolutionized art, music, architecture.  It was home to some of the most interesting counter- culture, political and social movements in the history of America. Here lived activists, musicians, poets, writers, that changed the world.

Forget all about the mainstream New York city and let’s explore the alternative, the underground scene of the beautiful Greenwich Village, or West village. There are some really great walking tours that will guide you through all the historic areas of the Village. Trust me, you won’t regret it!


Strolling around the Greenwich Village on a super hot Saturday afternoon


What is now considered one of the most expensive areas of New York city, was before the artistic center of the world. The “avant-garde” and “bohemia” of the Greenwich Village started during the 19th century and lasted for most of the 20th century, till the real estate speculation and exorbitant rent rises forced it’s inhabitants to move somewhere else.


The Greenwich village on a Saturday afternoon. I missed this place!


I walked the streets of The Village with my heart filled with emotions and melancholy, observing the effects gentrification had on one of the most historical areas of New York city, where some of my idols lived, walked and developed as musicians or counter-culture figures.




Polly’s MacDougal Street hangout in 1915


Polly Holladay was an anarchist who opened her restaurant when the Village hit it’s bohemian heights. The liberal artistic minded and politically active gathered there and the place was an immediate success. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Emma Goldman were regulars there.


The studio of the artist Arnold Bergier, at Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street, which was demolished in 1960 to make way for a 14-story building (despite the painted entreaties). Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah.


The Village was home to the first racially integrated club in the country, when the nightclub Café opened in 1938 at Sheridan Square, African American talented artists were welcomed. Barney Josephson intended this to be be a copy of the political cafe’s he had seen in Europe before world war II. In a time when the African Americans were segregated from the American society, this was an absolute revolution.




During the 1950’s the Village became the bohemian scene for the beatnik generation. Escaping what they considered the oppressive social conformity of mainstream society, a large community of writerS, poets, artists and students moved to the Greenwich Village and to North Beach in San Francisco, becoming the predecessor to the Hippy scene.

At Places like the Gaslight, the Village’s oldest coffee shop, the beatniks met to drink espresso coffee and hold philosophical discussions of life and art. Their messy hairdos, beards and different costumes expressed their rebellion against what was conventional at the time.


The age of the beatniks and the birth of folk music


The Village and surrounding areas, would later play central roles in the writings of Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Marianne Moore, Maya Angelou, Rod Mckuen.

The phrase “Beat generation” was  first introduced in 1948 by Jack Kerouac, to describe the underground, anti-conformist youth of the Greenwich Village.  Allen Ginsber Howl (1958), William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack’s Kerouac’s on the road (1957) are the best known examples of Beat literature.


Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Kerouac,. Greeenwich Village, 1957



Off off Broadway, started in Greenwich Village in 1958 as a reaction to the Broadway Shows and as a complete rejection of commercial theater. One of the historical theaters was Caffé Cino, ran by Joe Cino, who would let actors play in stage without bothering to read the screens first.



The Greenwich Village is the birth place of Folk music .  Bod Dylan was probably one of the most iconic folk singers who called the Village home for a long time and got inspiration from it’s movement.


– Bob Dylan and Friends by Jim Marshall – Greenwich Village – New York City 1963


Dylan, January 1965 Greenwich Village photo: Fred McDarrah


Dylan dropped out of college by the end of 1960. In 1961 he traveled to New York city hoping to meet his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill. In February of 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around Greenwich Village. He pick up most of his inspiration and influences from fellow folk singers living in the Village, including Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta, etc…


Dylan’s second album The Freeweelin’ in the streets of the Village


Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, Freewheelin was his second album, and the one who launched this 22 year old singer to the world. This album contains some of his most famous songs, like “Blowing in the wind”, “Girl from the north country”, “masters of war”, “A hard rain’s A-gonna fall”, and “don’t think twice”. It shows the world his talent as a singer, writer and poet and it’s wrapped in a cover that features him and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, walking down the Greenwich Village streets.



The Village had a cutting edge music scene. Some of the most famous clubs include Gerde’s Folk city, the Bitter end, Café au Go-go, Café Wha? The Gaslight café and the Bottom line.  Dozens of popular songwriters got their start in the Village’s nightclub, theaters and coffee house scenes during the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s.

Besides the notorious Bob Dylan, there was Jimi Hendrix; Barbara Streisand; Peter, Paul and Mary; Bette Miller; The loving spoonful;  Simon and Garfunkel; Liza Minelli, Joan Baez, The Velvet Underground, Richie Havens, Eric Andersen; The Kingston trio amongst others. The Greenwich Village of the 1950s and 1960s was at the center of Jane Jacobs‘s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which defended it and similar communities, while criticizing common urban renewal policies of the time.

The Mama’s and the Papas met here and their famous song, “California dreamin'” actually written in New York Greenwich Village, not in San Francisco as most people think.


Café Wha before


Sunset at café Wah? Yes, it still exists and I couldn’t miss it!




The rubble at 18 West 11th Street after the blast in 1970, and the address today. The town house was a bomb-making site for the Weathermen, a radical group also known as Weatherman and as Weather Underground. photo:new york times


Greenwich Village was also home to one of the many safe houses used by the radical anti-war movement known as the Weather Underground. On March 6, 1970, however, their safe house was destroyed when an explosive they were constructing was accidentally detonated, killing three Weathermen (Ted GoldTerry Robbins, and Diana Oughton).

I had the privilege to attend a conference in Boston 13 years ago, and hear William Ayers,  one of the Weather Underground activists tell their story. Yesterday, I had the chance to see their old safe-house in person.



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 rights 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 Village is today the most expensive piece of real Estate in New York city. There seems to be a pattern all over the world. Artists move in to cheap areas forming thriving, young vibrant communities. Those areas become so hip the real estate speculators or local governments take over. Rents sky rocket turning it impossible for the local people to afford their propriety taxes or rent.. They’re forced to move out of their homes, while real estate speculators buy proprieties which are later on sold for millions.

Kids playing around in the fountain.


Gentrification is the radical shift in an urban community or area, where the local residents are simply exchanged by wealthier residents. This is a form of economic eviction.

The death of the cultural and artistic vein of the Greenwich Village is evident. This is now the residence of millionaires and multi-millionaires. After the economic evictions in the 60’s and 70’s artists migrated to what is now called The East Village. The Beatnik and hippy movements are now over and punk rock emerges to give voice to the new social injustices.






  1. What a great post Yara. I found your historical overview and all the anecdotes so interesting, sometimes the expression ‘if walls could talk’ is definitely true! What is happening as a result of gentrification is horrible, so much is being lost. I have found something similar in St Pauli, Hamburg. I just hope gentrification will stop, soon.

    • Unfortunately there will never be an end for gentrification… It happened in Hamburg, it’s happening in Berlin, I’ve seen it happening in Barcelona. They’re doing it now in Lisbon. There will always be a struggle between the rich and the poor, cities will always experience the rise and the fall of cultural and creative communities thanks to economical interests and corruption. It’s the sad truth.

      The Greenwich Village and the East village, which I will explore next week, touches my heart deeply because that was the nest for the revolutionaries that changed the world and in a way, impacted my life.

  2. What a well-written post. I read from start to finish while my coffee turned cold. :-)

    • :) :) Wow, what a compliment! The story behind the Greenwich Village is really incredible and very people people know about this pretty little area of NYC. Just wait till I explore the East Village on my next post!

  3. What a great post! I went to college for a bit right outside of NYC and traveled into the city often, but I feel like I missed out on a lot of very cool things!

  4. I’ve been researching the beat scene in Greenwich Village for quite some time. Focusing on the coffee shop’s. I found…this very nice and informative! I feel like I’m reliving my grandfather’s footsteps. I wish I could find something on a place called ” A COFFEE house “, I found a menu in beautiful condition from this place located at 114 MacDougal. The cover is richly illustrated with a scene from this coffee house!! I’m estimating circa 1960 approx. Anyone who can help me email me at linda.LaDouceur [email protected] thanks for a lovely read…

  5. Again, Thank YOU for such a great read!! I have to correct myself for errors in my previous comment! What I have, is a menu that was my grandfather’s. He brought it home for grandma as she lived the small momento’s. The menu, is from a coffee house and theatre called “The Commons~A coffee House “105 MacDougal, Greenwich Village, New York city. From what I have read in my research is that this was open for 2 years, then it was expanded..and the name changed to ” The Fat Black pussycat “…. The illustration of the cover is of the beatnik scene, it’s so fabulous!!! I wish I knew who drew it! I would love to learn as much as I cash about this..

  6. This is a very nice post very informative! Thank you for sharing!


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