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
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.
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.
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.’  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.
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 swarm 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.
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
 Anna Alice Chapin, Greenwich Village (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917) (pp. 233-234).
 Djuna Barnes, Djuna Barnes’s New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (London: Virago, 1990) (p. 238).
 Winters Anne, The Displaced of Capital (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) (p. 44)
[Next instalment – Midtown]