John Strausbaugh’s portrait of Greenwich Village is sometimes romantic, often squalid, and most frequently magnetic in its ability to sustain a reader’s attention. It is a story told by a writer who has a deep bag of tricks to dazzle his audience, and who transparently employs them all in the service of creating a popular history. In the process, he advances the thesis that the Village was a “culture engine—a zone that attracts and nurtures creative people…creating work and developing ideas that change the culture of the world…Classical Athens was a culture engine, and Elizabethan London, and Paris and Berlin in the 1920s.” (Strausbaugh, p. ix).
But Strausbaugh will wander distantly from that point, presenting short biographies of colorful, forgotten eccentrics (like the emotionally disturbed poet Else Plotz or the poet/barfly/alcoholic Maxwell Bodenheim). Even exciting, unconnected events (like John Stanley Wojtowicz’s robbery of a downtown bank; subject of the film “Dog Day Afternoon”), pop-up. If it allows him to mesmerize his readers further, he’ll try it. To be fair, unsuccessful poets and mentally ill people are always part of a creative scene. They are attracted by the cheap living arrangements and expressive freedoms that also draw innovative artists or thinkers. Sometimes the only difference between the two is luck or critical recognition. Both groups are part of an unconventional landscape and presenting that scene fully can be defended, even if it leads to writing excesses and complete non-sequiturs. Sometimes the lost and mentally ill faction whom Strausbaugh exposes can inspire their more successful counterparts with expressions of individuality or abandon. Creativity can be overlooked by conventional society if one is not an effective self-promoter. While this is so, Strausbaugh will occasionally go beyond the bounds of what is suitable or relevant. His choice to begin the chapter “Off-Off-Broadway” with the graphic suicide of a little-known dancer is a questionable. Though he does make one pay attention.
The arrangement of The Village follows a traditional chronology. Beginning with the Dutch settlement of Manhattan, it moves quickly to the first Bohemians of the 19th Century. This is where the book begins to flourish. Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman make early appearances as Village residents. The first LGBT and freed African American communities are established. Political radicals like Emma Goldman, John Reed and Max Eastman begin populating its streets. Artists find their studios in former industrial buildings. Now famous dives, as well as more organized salons like those of Mabel Dodge Luhan and Marie Jenny Howe, allow creative cross-pollination. Institutions like the New School are devised by educators dissatisfied with stultifying orthodox ways of learning. At this point, the number of artists and innovators begins to astound. One Village acting class of then unknowns includes Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch, Wally Cox, Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis. (Strausbaugh, p. 279). The late 1940s – early 1950s music scene includes innumerable Jazz and Folk figures who collaborate with Post-Modern Dancers and Beat poets. The Village’s creativity explodes into the Sixties as the careers of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendricks, Andy Warhol and a hoard too vast to recount here, share their inventiveness. Then Stonewall happens, and the LGBT movement changes the culture in ways that continue to reverberate fifty years later. The seemingly perpetual culture engine continues to generate talent and ideas even through the recession of the 1970s, when abandoned buildings allowed Off-Off Broadway plays to triple in number. It only begins to run down into the 1980s as rents become more and more untenable.
The Village ends by describing the current, vapid, yuppie shadow of what it once was. But Strasbaugh has some of his protagonists make the point that, while the zeitgeist may be over in the Village, it exists elsewhere. Rock photographer, Bob Gruen, states “Who cares…if people are not making art in downtown Manhattan anymore…the Village isn’t what it used to be…Nothing will ever be the way it used to be. Things always change… [innovation] didn’t disappear. There are still young people and young bands.” (Strausbaugh, p. 549). This is the positive note on which the story ends: There will always be culture engines in the world. Unknown artists and intellectuals will find other refuges of low rents and open permissive attitudes that are invisible to the conventional aspects of a civilization. There, they will create, innovate and change the culture without most people noticing where that transformation is happening.
Strausbaugh, John. The Village. 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.