Today, I walked with my kids past my first apartment in New York City — on Washington Place, in Greenwich Village. They were mildly interested when I pointed up to the fourth-floor window. It was soon forgotten as we strolled through Washington Square Park, buzzing with people soaking up the sun and listening to impromptu live music sessions. I didn’t mention anything to them about my daily saunter across this same park on my way home from class at New York University 35 years earlier, when I would pause to buy ‘loose joints’ from the Rastafarian guys who used to play soccer right where we now stand to watch a juggler.
It’s safe to say that both Greenwich Village and I have changed since 1980. The city then was just emerging from bankruptcy; there was a palpable edge, a well-earned sense of danger about the place. I was 17 and wide-eyed, a kid from New Jersey set loose on the mean streets before I was ready.
“The Lord takes care of babies and fools,” a friend of mine used to say — and I was both. But those were heady times of discovery. In Greenwich Village, there was a feeling that everything was possible. It was a place to come and start over — invent yourself anew. ‘Anything goes’ was the feeling on the narrow, cobblestone streets. I took my first legal drink in the Village. I lost my virginity in the Village. I met Andy Warhol here, and Al Pacino. I came of age below 14th Street.
At the time, the Village had long since begun its transition from a bohemian sanctuary to the city’s centre of gay life and an artist’s haven. It wasn’t surprising to see drag queens roller skating down Fifth Avenue, or a diminutive man wearing a beret sitting before a canvas and easel on a street corner, painting the facades of the brownstones that lined Perry Street. Today, of course, most of the artists have been priced out — gone to Brooklyn (if they can still afford it there) and beyond. The gay culture has migrated north to Chelsea.
The Bleecker Street of my youth is nearly unrecognisable now. No more is the leather goods shop where I used to buy belts and bags, gone with the old lady behind the counter with the heavily arthritic hands. Gone too is the framing shop where I’d stop in to chat with my occasional drinking partner, Tom. Today, that entire strip of Bleecker Street beyond Seventh Avenue has been transformed into a destination shopping corridor. Elegant window displays for Ralph Lauren and Tom Ford and James Perse line the tree-shaded block.
Just steps away, the Corner Bistro used to be one of my regular spots, and still is. A quarter of a century ago, The Bistro was what we called ‘a real dive’, filled with old codgers nursing their bourbon at the well-worn bar. Today, they’re still there, but so too are the hipsters and the tourists, all mingling easily, drinking, laughing, eating at what’s perhaps the best bar burger in town. Tortilla Flats, the Mexican restaurant is still around too. It used to be an outlier in the far West Village, but now that same corner is right in the heart of things, across the street from the trendy Italian eatery, Barbuto.
But nothing in the Village has changed more than the waterfront. Decrepit docks have been reborn as elegant public spaces. Dark deeds used to be performed under cover of the night by the water; these days, dogs are walked on loose leads, bikers zip past, and lovers stroll after the sun sinks behind the Statue of Liberty and across the Hudson River.
And so many of the green spaces are now not only green but filled with explosions of colour in the spring. Tiny Abingdon Square Park was peppered with used hypodermic needles when I lived across the street — today it is stuffed with tulips. Jefferson Market Garden is a sanctuary just off busy Sixth Avenue, beside neighbourhood landmark the High Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Library.
But as much as things change, things remain the same. La Bonbonniere, on lower Eighth Avenue, is the greasiest of greasy spoons, and still serves up the best breakfast in town. Iconic jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard still draw a line out on the sidewalk on a weekend night. So does Smalls Jazz Club, a tiny venue down a flight of stairs. And the Blue Note Jazz Club can still pack the house.
New York City is not a town for nostalgia — it drives ever forward. Have things been lost in all the evolution? Of course. Is it a better place to live now? Definitely. But for all its changes, the Village remains uniquely the Village. I’ve tried living elsewhere — it never stuck.
Read more of the New York cover story in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)