Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part V

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here, part II here, part III here and part iv here.

  1. Harlem

I must have been no older than 10 when I first heard Harlem mentioned in the song “Take the A Train” (1939), made famous by Duke Ellington. The lyrics would echo around in my head every time I heard Harlem mentioned.

You must take the A Train

To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

If you miss the A Train

You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem.


In this footage from the film Reveille with Beverly (1943), Duke Ellington and his Orchestra perform “Take the A Train”, with vocals by Joya Sherrill.

The next moment Harlem significantly entered my consciousness was when I was studying for my A-Level music. We studied Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and learned about the rise of early jazz in New Orleans and its popularity when the jazz scene moved to New York. I later became fascinated by the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance; Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Aaron Douglas being some of the most prominent. Having read and heard a lot of accounts of Harlem; both the Harlem of the past and more recent Harlem, I was intrigued to gauge the present day vibe.

We caught the subway (incidentally the A train), rattling from Canal Street up to 125th Street. It was about 5.30 pm when we strolled out onto Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Our first port of call was the Levain Bakery on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where trip advisor informed us the cookies were second to none. The Levain cookies were scone-like in shape, but beautifully soft in the centre and indeed heavenly.

After demolishing our cookies, we headed towards Marcus Garvey park. On the way, we heard the sonorous strains of live jazz echoing from the downstairs basement of an apartment block. Saxophone and trumpet wailed in counterpoint; an impromptu accompaniment to the syncopated steps of the sidewalk strollers.

Before heading up to Harlem, I had read about Marjorie Eliot, an inspirational jazz pianist, who, after the death of her son Phillip on a Sunday in 1992, decided to open up her living room for free jazz concerts in celebration of her son’s life. And so, Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz was born. Since that day, every Sunday at 3.30 for 23 years, come rain or come shine, Marjorie Eliot has welcomed esteemed performers and audiences seated on folding chairs into her Sugar Hill apartment. Eliot has now reached legendary status in Harlem and her concerts attract diverse audiences including locals and tourists from all parts of the globe.


Marjorie Eliot in her living room (courtesy of

As we ascended the hill or “the acropolis” in Marcus Garvey park, a beautiful orange glow began to appear over the city. As the sun began to set and I gazed out across the Harlem rooftops, I remembered a section of Langston Hughes’ love poem “Harlem Night Song”.


The Harlem roof-tops

Moon is shining.

Night sky is blue.

Stars are great drops

Of golden dew.

Down the street

A band is playing.

I love you.


Let us roam the night together


Although night hadn’t yet fallen, the poem resonated with the scene that day; the rooftops, the distant high-rise city, and the band reverberating down the street.


View over the city from Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem

As we made our way back down 125th street, we passed the Apollo Theatre and the shell of the Lenox Lounge, both pivotal venues on the New York jazz scene. Lenox lounge sadly closed in 2012, but in its time hosted a string of jazz legends including Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and counted Langston Hughes as a patron. Meanwhile, the Apollo became a hub of culture when it opened its doors to African-American performers and audiences in 1934. Since then, the Apollo has been at the epicentre of American entertainment and has been responsible for launching the careers of many hugely influential performers up to the present day. Past and contemporary artists include Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, B.B. King, The Supremes, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Five, Jay-Z and Leon Bridges. Having been restored in 2001, the theatre is going strong and is playing host to a wide array of performers.

Continuing down the street, wisps of pink began to streak like candyfloss, illuminating the darkening sky. Our time in New York was nearly up and we took the subway back downtown to pack our bags.


Harlem nightfall

The next morning we hailed a cab to take us to the docks. From the decks the Queen Mary II, now a fond friend, we watched as New York faded into the distance. It had been an adventure. We waved knowing it was goodbye for now, but not forever.

[1] Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1959) (p. 61).

Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part IV

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here, part II here and part III here.

4. Lower East Side

Many of the East Side women had this horrible custom. To save walking downstairs, they wrapped their garbage in newspapers and flung it in the street. In summer the East Side heavens rained with potato peelings, coffee grounds, herring heads and dangerous soup bones. Bang, went a bundle, and the people in the street ducked as if a machine gun sounded.[1]

We could smell the Lower East Side even before we could see it. It was market day in Chinatown and a pungent aroma of fish and smog made its way down into the Grand Street subway tunnel. The heavy air became muskier as we emerged into the street, and was only accentuated by the beating September morning sun. As we traversed the district, good smells triumphed over bad, people excitedly jostled and shouted, and a rainbow of market goods unfolded before us.

The unique fusion of fragrances, sights, sounds and smells are all part of the dynamic and transitory heritage of this area. Having long been the first port of call after Ellis Island for migrants seeking a better life in the New World, the area is a monument to its own history. At the turn of the last century, the tenement laden streets played host to innumerable families of Jewish, Italian, Irish, German, Polish, Russian and Chinese descent, to name just a few. These disparate groups lived side by side in close proximity, unified by their struggles and common experience. Whole families, often with the addition of a lodger, squeezed into three room tenement apartments, and in the summer, the stifling heat and lack of ventilation drove many out onto the fire-escapes or rooftops to sleep.


Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, Heat Spell, May 23rd 1941

The Lower East Side has lent itself to the needs of its residents. Its buildings adapted to their manifold requirements; tenements converted into synagogues, and churches transformed into theatres. Strolling through the streets, the names rang in my ears – Rivington Street, Orchard Street, Delancey Street, Grand Street – each in their time harbouring an individual character or notoriety. To many residents their street was a badge of honour.

The Lower East Side is now predominantly home to the city’s Chinese-American population, although between the elegant sprawl of Mandarin signage, there is plenty of evidence of previous co-existing occupants. Ghost signs layer the area like a palimpsest, peeling back the strata of time and telling the stories of generations past; “Ideal Hosiery”, “Wah Lin Chinese Laundry”, “G. La Rosa and Son. Bread Company”, “Tree-Mark Shoes”, “Louis Zuflacht & Sons’ Smart Clothes” and “DeRobertis’ Pastry Shoppe”.

Long gone are the intimidating days of Robber’s Roost, captured so hauntingly in Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890). The streets are no longer crammed full of pushcarts, peddlers calling their wares or children playing. Lower East Side scenes captured by artists and writers of the early twentieth century, invariably depict a hullabaloo, as life in all its infinite variety overflows from nearby tenements and into the streets.

In Jews Without Money (1930), Mike Gold retells the Lower East Side of his childhood, palpably conjuring the commotion of the streets:

‘Excitement, dirt, fighting, chaos! The sound of my street lifted like the blast of a great carnival or catastrophe. The noise was always in my ears. Even in sleep I could hear it; I can hear it now.’[2]

Whilst wandering the area, we glimpsed some of the more intimate scenes of modern day life. Rounding a corner and peeking through the frame of an unassuming double door, we spied the transitory vignette of a tiny Buddhist temple and a man praying; the glow of the ornate interior and billowing incense escaping onto the street.


Jacob Riis, Bandit’s Roost, 1888


George Bellows Cliff Dwellers 1913


Colour Photograph of Mulberry Street, Little Italy 1900 – Detroit Publishing (Library of Congress)

Having spent what must have been the best part of an hour roaming these well-worn streets, we booked onto a tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, then promptly went in search of lunch.

Dumplings are a speciality in this area, so we joined the longest lunch queue, taking popularity as a recommendation. At the end of the queue formed down the sidewalk of Eldridge Street was Prosperity Dumpling, a tiny establishment which dished out a delicious selection of dumplings, soups and noodles straight from the kitchen.

As we waited patiently, a homeless man began wearily making his way down the street towards us. Upon arrival at Prosperity Dumpling, he parked his trolley outside, and bypassing the queue walked straight up to the counter. Waiting for him was a steaming pot of dumplings. No money exchanged hands, and no words were uttered, only an exchange of understanding glances. The man carefully placed his dumplings on top of the randomly assorted items contained in his trolley, and continued on his way.

This was something that came to my attention on several occasions whilst in New York. Juxtaposed with the boldness of American capitalism, in small, often impromptu gestures of philanthropy, people were looking out for each other, just as they had always done on the Lower East Side in times of trouble.

Our afternoon at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street was fascinating. The tours are scrupulously researched and based on the lives of real families who occupied this particular block of tenements. We learned about the Jewish-German Gumpertz family who moved to Orchard Street in 1863, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family who were there during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. Both encountered great hardships, but ultimately pulled through. Nathalie Gumpertz’ struggled to make ends meet after her husband suddenly abandoned the family, while Josephine Baldizzi remembered her mother crying for her native Sicily as she tuned into opera on the wireless.

Our guide told us that Josephine Baldizzi had taken a tour of school children from  Chinatown around her old apartment. Upon explaining how the bathtub in the tenements was traditionally in the kitchen and could also be used as a sink complete with draining board, one small boy proudly raised his hand to explain that his mother did the same. Baldizzi found this a humbling experience, not realising that people still lived as she had. Emphatically she told the boy “don’t ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you.”

The Lower East Side is full of stories. Memories are in the fabric of its walls and embedded in its streets. The district is remembered through a vast mythopoeia; rose-tinted by nostalgia and forgotten suffering. It is hard to sort the truth from the myth, but is this not true of all New York?

[1] Michael Gold, Jews Without Money [New York: Horace Liveright inc., 1930] p. 57

[2] Michael Gold, Jews Without Money [New York: Horace Liveright inc., 1930] p. 13-14

[Next instalment – Harlem]

CFP: The State of Fiction: Don DeLillo in the 21st Century

The State of Fiction:
Don DeLillo in the 21st Century
10 June 2015, University of Sussex
Keynote speaker: John N. Duvall (Purdue)

Writing also means trying to advance the art. Fiction hasn’t quite been filled in or done in or worked out. We make our small leaps.
Don DeLillo, 1982

This one-day conference will address the state of fiction in contemporary American culture by focusing on the extensive oeuvre of Don DeLillo,from the 1970s to the present day and beyond. DeLillo commented shortly after the publication of The Names that fiction had not yet been ‘filled in,’
‘done in,’ or ‘worked out.’ How do we read this thirty years later, in the shadow of not only DeLillo’s major works but also the events that have characterised our move into the Twenty-First Century? How have DeLillo’s small leaps between the New York of Players (1977) and the New York of Falling Man (2007) ‘filled in’ fiction? Has DeLillo’s pervasive influence across contemporary American culture ‘done in’ postmodernism? Is the novel in the Twenty First Century already ‘worked out’?

Registration is open and tickets are available for purchase on our

For any queries please contact us at

DeLillo Poster Final

Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part III

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here, and part II here.

3. Midtown

At approximately 10am on our second day, we burrowed down into the stifling underground world that was New York’s subway system. Hot polluted air seemed to blast from every angle, musicians added to the commotion on the platform, and haphazard carriages raced by, each grinding to an equally abrupt halt beside us.

I remembered photos I had once seen of New York’s underground dwellers, the so called ‘mole people’; a community shrouded in somewhat sensationalised urban legend and rumour. In the 1990s, they were said to have occupied the empty spaces in abandoned subway, flood and sewage tunnels, and were depicted as sort of Morlocks of the modern age. Between 1994 and 1995, war photographer Teun Voeten spent five months living with tunnel dwellers who were using the city’s subterranean infrastructure for warmth and shelter. He documents their lives and stories in his fascinating book Tunnel People (2010). In 1996, the tunnels were closed and most inhabitants were evicted and rehomed by New York’s homeless authorities.


Tuen Voeten, Tunnel People: Kathy in her bunker with all her cats – the bunker used to be storage space for Amtrak

Although built only a decade or so later, the subway feels somehow brasher and less refined than the London Underground. The carriages are old and clunky and move away with such haste that whilst in the process of trying to sit down, you are more likely to land directly on the stranger next to you. Each time, the action of leaving a station resembles the jolt of a horse being released from the starting gate, meanwhile stops along the way are observed by the carriages with a seeming reluctance. As we packed in like penguins, I recalled a scene from the silent movie Speedy (1928), in which Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift (Harold Lloyd) takes his girlfriend Jane (Ann Christy) to Coney Island via the subway. There is very little room for them to sit down, resulting in Speedy’s comedic attempts to win seats for himself and Jane.


Speedy (1928): watch here

I lost count of the number of times we lost our way in various subway-related blunders, but today we whisked our way perfectly down to 42nd Street, where we emerged like dazed rabbits into the bright lights of theatreland. I had never seen so many skyscrapers. Humans raced everywhere, ant-like on the sidewalks. This was a truly futuristic landscape.

As early as the 19th Century, the area surrounding Broadway was known as ‘the Great Whiteway’ and as soon as electricity became widespread, Midtown became a dazzling beacon, casting many of the poorer areas of the city into contrasting darkness. Even in the modern age, when humans are rarely amazed by the wonders of technology, this was one of the most striking spectacles I had ever seen. The lights mingled with the overbearing stature of the skyscrapers to make the humans crowding the pavements seem wholly insignificant.

To the contemporary population when skyscrapers first burgeoned around the turn of the century, the new vista must have been mesmerising and intimidating in equal measure. In her short story ‘Behind the Singer Tower’, Willa Cather imbues the new landscape with a pubescent sense of awkwardness:

‘The city itself, as we looked back at it, seemed enveloped in a tragic self-consciousness. Those incredible towers of stone and steel seemed, in the mist, to be grouped confusedly together, as if they were left after a forest is cut away. One might fancy that the city was protesting, was asserting its helplessness, its irresponsibility for its physical conformation, for the direction it had taken. It was an irregular parallelogram pressed between two hemispheres, and, like any other solid squeezed into a vise, it shot upward.’[1]

Just as the majesty and the lights began to emerge as a super-human entity, we were brought back down to earth with a sight symbolic of modern day America. The vision of a lone workman changing a lightbulb on what was probably the largest flashing McDonalds sign in the world; and reminding us that it is the work of ordinary mankind which underlies many of the world’s greatest wonders.


Times Square

We rounded the corner and arrived at Times Square, sometimes known as the ‘Crossroads of the World’, a nexus where Midtown’s commercial and theatrical centres collide. Here advertising poses as art and gaudy billboards ostentatiously flash and demand attention. We climbed to the highest step at the centre of the square and sat gingerly eating Dunkin’ Donuts as a selfie stick battle unfolded around us. At this point I remembered reading a poem by Vachel Lindsay entitled ‘A Ryhme About an Electrical Advertising Sign’ (1917), in which Lindsay compares the synthetic lights of New York with the stars in the sky.

I look on the specious electrical light
Blatant, mechanical, crawling and white,
Wickedly red or malignantly green
Like the beads of a young Senegambian queen.
Showing, while millions of souls hurry on,
The virtues of collars, from sunset till dawn,
By dart or by tumble of whirl within whirl,
Starting new fads for the shame-weary girl,
By maggotry motions in sickening line
Proclaiming a hat or a soup or a wine,
While there far above the steep cliffs of the street
The stars sing a message elusive and sweet.
Now man cannot rest in his pleasure and toil
His clumsy contraptions of coil upon coil
Till the thing he invents, in its use and its range,
Leads on to the marvelous CHANGE BEYOND CHANGE
Some day this old Broadway shall climb to the skies,
As a ribbon of cloud on a soul-wind shall rise.
And we shall be lifted, rejoicing by night,
Till we join with the planets who choir their delight.
The signs in the street and the signs in the skies
Shall make me a Zodiac, guiding and wise,
And Broadway make one with that marvelous stair
That is climbed by the rainbow-clad spirits of prayer.[2]

After studying this magnificent scene from the ground, we made our way to the Rockefeller Centre for ‘Top of the Rock’, where a high-speed elevator with a glass-ceiling propelled us to the observation deck. The dazzling city unfurled before us as it glittered more from each level as we ascended. The silvern eagles of the Chrysler Building’s art deco turret were barely visible beyond the mass of skyscrapers which now overshadow it, while the Empire State Building glowed a majestic red.

The opening stanzas of James Oppenheim’s poem ‘New York, from a Skyscraper’ (1909) perfectly encapsulate the sensation of gazing across New York from the heights:

UP in the heights of the evening skies I see my City of cities float
In sunset’s golden and crimson dyes: I look, and a great joy clutches my throat!
Plateau of roofs by canyons crossed: windows by thousands fire-unfurled
O gazing, how the heart is lost in the Deepest City in the World!
O sprawling City! Worlds in a world! Housing each strange type that is human—
Yonder a Little Italy curled—here the haunt of the Scarlet Woman—
The night’s white Bacchanals of Broadway—the Ghetto pushcarts ringed with faces—
Wall Street’s roar and the Plaza’s play—a weltering focus of all Earth’s races![3]


‘Top of the Rock’

Back on the ground the following day, we made a literary pilgrimage to the Algonquin Hotel, where we asked to see the round table at which Dorothy Parker and her well-informed set of ‘vicious circle’ contemporaries had regularly dined.

The Algonquin ‘wits’,  many of whom were journalists and authors, met here from 1919 until 1929 and were known to discuss current affairs reflective of the zeitgeist, while exchanging quips which were frequently reported in the ‘overheard’ columns of newspapers.

Although the layout of the Algonquin has now largely changed, the round table still remains… albeit encircled by some rather out-of-keeping studded white chairs. A painting of the members of the Algonquin Round Table also adorns the wall above. Considering we’d just walked in from the street, the hotel staff were extremely generous with their time, giving us a full history of the table. We were also fortunate enough to meet the hotel cat, Matilda who roams the lobby – a tradition stemming from the 1930s.


The Algonquin Round Table and portrait above

We spent a lot of time in Midtown; exploring the New York Public Library and beautiful Bryant Park with its outdoor reading room, cycling the length of Central Park from Columbus Circle, getting lost in the ramble, boating on the lake and hopping between the multitude of museums and art galleries during their free opening hours.

Midtown is, and has long been, the face of New York; the landscape which is most emblematic of this city. From the rise of the skyscrapers, the skyline became one of the most identifiable in the world; nevertheless, there is more underlying this city than its urbane Midtown façade.

[1] Willa Cather, Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970) (p. 43).

[2] Vachel Lindsay, Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008) (p. 146).

[3] James Oppenheim, The Book of New York Verse (New York, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, 1917) (p. 306).

[Next instalment: Lower East Side]

Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins ‘Trouble at the Vale: Chelsea anarchists in the 1890s’

As part of the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series at the University of Birmingham, Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins (University of Reading) will be presenting ‘Trouble at the Vale: Chelsea anarchists in the 1890s’, on Thursday 7 May, 5:15 pm in the Barber Photograph Room, Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Vale, Chelsea where the artists Ricketts and Shannon lived between 1888 and 1894 was one of the centres of bohemian London. Their circle included the poet John Gray, Oscar Wilde, the poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper who published under the name Michael Field, Lucien Pissarro and many others. Lucien Pissarro had well-established links with the French anarchists in exile in London and also in Paris, and several of the others were declared anarchists. This paper looks at this network, and discusses the ways in which their anarchist beliefs impacted on their art.

All are welcome. Enquiries to Imogen Wiltshire:

Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part II

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929’ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here.

2. Greenwich Village

culture shock
          1 The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly                       subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

7:00 am. “Anything to declare?” said the customs official in a broad New York accent.
“Jam and tea”, we said, suddenly realising that we were importing the singularly most British things we could have stolen from the boat.
“Can I see it?”, he asked, as we furtively made him privy to our loot.
“I think we can cope with that”, he said, hiding a smile and thereby granting us access to the United States of America.

7:20 am. Our yellow cab pulled up at MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village after a whirlwind whisk over Brooklyn Bridge and through the early morning commuter traffic; the city flickering past like an old movie. As our sleepless eyes worked overtime to comprehend the new scenery, we were promptly deposited, rucksacks and all, outside our new abode. Our sturdy sea legs, firmly instated over seven days, struggled to make the transition to land, as, Bambi-like with the burden of our bags and the weight our own expectation, we located the only establishment open at 7:25 in the morning; McDonalds. Ellie promptly bought a coffee for herself and a homeless man, whilst we sat, bemusedly watching the eclectic stream of New Yorkers gallivant past.

8.00 am. We took our custom to an all the more elegant setting; Caffé Reggio, where the bohemian dream is still alive and well. Caffé Reggio was opened in 1927 by Domenico Parisi and claims to have served the first cappuccino in America. The café is lavishly decorated with ancient European riches, including a bench from the Medici family (which we sat on), a Caravaggio school painting and an original espresso machine from 1902. These treasures, along with the bold autumnal colours give Caffé Reggio an air of faded grandeur.

We outstayed our welcome here for two hours, nibbling on croissant and stealthily imbibing tea, as we surveyed the scene from our aptly chosen people-watching position. Adjacent to us, the French waitress perused her book with latent moroseness, the Italian-American proprietors impaled their Victorian looking cash register with numerous varieties of screwdriver, and an NYU student with long combed-back hair and round spectacles, conscious of his own cultivated image, posed with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.


Caffé Reggio

I felt as if I’d been taken and plunged head first into a living stereotype of 1920s Greenwich Village bohemia. I began to think I was Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and was half expecting Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or any of the other famed literary figures from that era, to walk in and order a coffee. After all, the next building along was the Provincetown Playhouse where so many important writers of the early twentieth-century had performed and debuted their plays.

Taking a reality check, I reminded myself that Greenwich Village had long been the subject of its residents’ own self-constructed mythopoeia; café culture having been a key exponent of bohemian ideology. Numerous independently owned establishments, for example, demanded eccentricity and play-acting from their guests. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Room (now a takeaway) for instance, was opened in 1916 in a basement on West 4th Street at the corner of Washington Square Park. In 1917, Anna Alice Chapin wrote in her book Greenwich Village that:

The entrance alone is a monument to the make-believe capabilities of the Village. Scrawled on the stone wall beside the steps that lead down to the little basement tea room, is an inscription in chalk. It looks like anything but English. But if you held a looking-glass up to it you would find that it is “Down the Rabbit Hole” written backward! […] The people around you seem only pleasantly mad, not dangerously so. There is a girl with an enchanting scrap of a monkey; there is a youth with a manuscript and a pile of cigarette butts. The great thing here is that they are taking their little play and their little stage with a heavenly seriousness, all of them. You expect somebody to produce a set of flamingos at any moment and start a game of croquet among the tiny tables.[1]


Mad Hatter’s Tea Room by Jessie Tarbox Beals (ca. 1906-1916)

With numerous other madcap cafés, clubs, shops and restaurants, the news quickly spread that Greenwich Village was the place to be. There was an influx of cultural tourism or ‘slumming’ as it is better know, with visitors descending from far and wide with the hope of catching their own glimpse of bohemia. In Djuna Barnes’ article ‘Becoming Intimate with the Bohemians’, Madam Bronx goes out in search of the Greenwich Village she has read about in newspaper articles. Initially disillusioned with what she finds, Madam Bronx suddenly spots someone she deems to be a bohemian, and ‘grabbing a hand of either child exactly like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass as she hurried forward. ‘There’s one now!’ […] And so she left me in pursuit of a mere woman in a gingham gown with a portfolio under her arm.’ [2] This sort of urban safari is still possible in the Village, but with prices as they are, sightings are more likely to be bohemians with hedge funds.

The theme of cultivated bohemia extended into our AirBnB apartment which, as the owner informed us, was adorned with swathes of sequinned fabric and beautiful treasures from her time as an actress in Paris. The building had six floors accessed via a large wooden staircase, four flats per floor and an intercom which fictitiously listed G. Sands, A. Ginsberg and D. Parker among its residents. The apartment itself was cosy with just three rooms and fire-escapes from the windows. In the kitchen was a bathtub, there were WCs in the corridor and walls were so paper thin, we knew the intricate details of the lives next door, above us and below us. This was the New York I had read about and imagined, but it was only after visiting to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum that we realised we were staying in an old Greenwich Village tenement building.


Layout of a New Law “Dumbbell” tenement block – our apartment was exactly the same layout, three rooms with two windows to the front and two to the back


The old freestanding bathtub was in the kitchen, next to the sink

MacDougal Street Old Law Tenements:

We’re aware in every nerve end of our tenement’s hand-mortared Jersey brick, the plumbing’s dripping dew-points, the electric running Direct, and on each landing four hall-johns fitted to the specifics and minima of the 1879 Tenement Housing Act. We lived in its clauses and parentheses, that drew up steep stairways and filled the brown airwells with eyebrowed windows. Unwhistling, the midwinter radiator lists in its pool of rust. A lightcord winds through its light chain; from a plasterless ceiling-slat topples a roach, with its shadow. Downstairs, our Sicilian widow beats the cold ribs with a long-handled skillet, and faucets drum in twenty old-law flats.[3]

Although our apartment was not in the least bit squalid, cramped or dark (in fact it was beautiful), I could imagine it, perhaps a century ago; stifling, noisy and overcrowded. I thought of all those people; new migrant families, restaurateurs, aspiring artists or poets who must have paced barefoot over these same uneven floorboards or spilled out onto their fire-escape balconies on a hot day. What was it they were seeking from this city? Did their dreams come true? I could imagine them, all of them, packed in like bees into a hive, room upon room, building next to building, engulfing the city in a sea of diverse cultures, colours, clamour and chatter. The ghosts of the past were palpable here.

New York was overwhelming for the first few days and an unexpected sense of culture shock set in. I think British people often take cultural similarities between the UK and the USA for granted because we share the same language. But what about the cultural differences? As someone who has visited a lot of different European countries, I thought I was pretty well prepared for anything. It turns out that speaking the same language doesn’t always help in New York. We got confused an embarrassing number of times on the subway and got lost trying to follow the grid system. We got talked to by a lot of people in the street, even though New Yorkers are supposed to be some of the least friendly Americans. The city is like a collage of life, we never knew what sort of eccentric or unusual scene might be unfolding around the corner. One moment we saw a man nonchalantly taking his parrot for a walk, and the next an enormous bulldog blocking the entire sidewalk because he didn’t want to go to day school.

One of my favourite experiences was taking a small detour to visit one of the many places of literary importance in the Village; Patchin Place. Having taken a daily jog around Washington Square park, I had already marvelled at the arch where, as the story goes, in 1917 a motley crew of artists (including Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan) declared Greenwich Village a ‘free and independent republic’. Nevertheless, Patchin Place, a gated pedestrianised row behind Jefferson Market library was my favourite literary location. This was the home poet E.E. Cummings and his neighbour, writer and artist Djuna Barnes. Barnes spent her last years in this street, and it is said that her long periods of solitude were occasionally broken by Cummings shouting from his window “Are you still alive, Djuna?” This little street with its 19th Century gas lamp at one end and its iron railings at the other was home to some of New York’s most key artistic figures of the last century, also including novelist Theodor Dreiser, writers and socialists Louise Bryant and John Reed, as well as actor Marlon Brando. Although the whole of New York is steeped in cultural and literary history of this sort, Patchin Place really stole my heart.


Patchin Place

Eventually one cannot help but surrender to the pace and rhythm of the city. By the end of our stay, accustomed and unfazed, we were the ones giving directions and helping people on the subway. The city is vibrant and uncompromising, you have to learn to keep up with it, because it won’t wait for you.

One of the key emblems of Greenwich Village:


 Jefferson Market by John Sloan (1917)


Jefferson Market taken by me – the elevated railway was demolished in 1938, and the surrounding buildings have changed, but now a library, the Jefferson Market building remains the same

[1] Anna Alice Chapin, Greenwich Village (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917) (pp. 233-234).

[2] Djuna Barnes, Djuna Barnes’s New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (London: Virago, 1990) (p. 238).

[3] Winters Anne, The Displaced of Capital (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) (p. 44)

[Next instalment – Midtown]