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The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues -- A History of Greenwich Village
By John Strausbaugh
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Like most people, I've always primarily associated the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan with the Abstract Expressionists and Beat poets of the post-World-War-Two era, when the near-total destruction of Europe made this unassuming neighborhood the new global center of hipness and cool, a literal symbol of the worldwide cultural takeover the United States pulled off in general in the 1950s; but as John Strausbaugh shows in his remarkable new 600-page history of the neighborhood, Greenwich Village's bohemian roots actually go all the way back to the birth of Romanticism in the early 1800s and the invention of the term "bohemian" to begin with, and that this loosely defined confederation of "old New York" streets has been a constant haven for artists, druggies, the gay community and intellectual minorities ever since, not just in the years that it was known world-wide for this. Originally a sleepy suburb of New York City proper (thus the "Village" designation that has stuck with it ever since), it just so happened that this was the hot growing neighborhood for middle-class businessmen and their artist friends back in the early 1800s when the "bohemian class" was first invented, essentially a construct of the Romantic Era that redefined artists from hard-working craftsmen into tortured souls who suffered for aesthetics' sake; and so it was to this neighborhood that the first generation of bohemians turned when doing their suffering and drinking and casual sex, with Strausbaugh painting an enviable portrait of a sweaty, smoky Victorian-Age Greenwich populated by the nation's first gay bars and opium dens, visited on a regular basis by such stalwarts as Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane. And that's the way the neighborhood essentially continued without a break for the next 150 years, with Strausbaugh devoting large and detailed sections of his exhaustive book to the turn of the century and the rise of the great New York art museums; the Village after World War One when it became essentially the "Left Bank Lite;" its mainstream heyday in the World War Two era; and its last hurrah as a locus for gay rights in the 1960s and '70s, before massive gentrification in the '80s and '90s turned it into a permanent upper-class historical district that artists can no longer afford to live in. Smart and accessible, and full of literally hundreds of anecdotes about its most infamous citizens of the last two centuries, Strausbaugh's book is an epic read but a hugely rewarding one, and it comes strongly recommended to anyone interested in knowing more about the history of artistic neighborhoods in the United States.
Out of 10: 9.7