Although it isn’t our first time in New York City, we’re still finding it overwhelming. It’s a colossal city, with so much on offer that it’s hard to know where to start exploring and what to do.
One thing in our favour is that we have done all the sights – Central Park, Empire State Building, the museums, etc – on previous visits, which means the pressure is off so we can just kick back and not feel like we’re missing out on anything. But where to kick back is the question?
While local writer David Farley (whom we interviewed here) recommended we get out of Manhattan and experience the ‘real’ New York, i.e. boroughs such as Brooklyn and Queens, we’ve decided to stay in the East Village, as we don’t enjoy spending a lot of time on subways.
Instead, we’re going to focus. We’re going to stick around Lower Manhattan and New York City’s ‘villages’ – our home, the East Village, as well as our neighbours, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and to a lesser extent, the West Village.
We decided to get a kick-start from our friends at Context and signed up for their Greenwich Village Walk with local architect Michelle Cianfaglione – ironically, an Italian-American who is originally from the Bronx but now living in Manhattan.
A hamlet within a city, Greenwich Village (like the East Village, as we’re to discover) has always defined itself by its sense of community, and it doesn’t take long for us to appreciate this, as we walk its leafy streets, by basketball games and kids playing in parks, on our way to meet Michelle. The area has a very different feel to Midtown and Uptown and the financial district further south.
Michelle begins our walking tour at a secret spring, the city’s main source of water, the Minetta Stream – bizarrely hidden beneath the lobby of an apartment building. “The whole of Soho used to be a pond!” Michelle tells us excitedly, “Many sources dried up, others were simply built over, but this one still runs.” This is a girl who gets excited by history and urban planning, and it’s infectious.
As we stroll toward Washington Square, Michelle explains that we’re walking the shape of the creek, making it easy to imagine what it must have been like. We stop in the Square, the heart of the Village – where it’s also strange, as Michelle points out, that when the City recently renovated the park, it didn’t consider taking advantage of the water source. The fountain currently sits empty and unfinished.
We take a seat in Washington Square, not far from the park’s splendid arch. Michelle tells us about the City’s Native American roots and its early colonisation by the British and Dutch, who brought African slaves to work the fields here and provide a buffer between their country retreats and the Native Americans ‘uptown’.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the City began to create the grid as we know it now, as a way to deal with the rapidly growing population and what was starting to become a very dense city. And it was as early as that that New York University (NYU), one of the City’s largest landholders, began to buy and level out land and cover the streams.
While the amount of land that NYU owns is controversial (as we’ll also quickly discover), Michelle acknowledges that the University saved a lot of old buildings from becoming derelict, and was responsible for a new style of architecture, Greek Revival, which tipped its hat to the classical style.
Michelle shows us Macdougal Alley, a quaint little lane lined with mews, former carriage houses; The Row, on the north side of Washington Square, which exemplifies the Greek Revival style of architecture; and Washington Mews, another charming cobblestone street lined with splendidly renovated buildings owned by NYU. At each stop she points out the architectural features and details that identify each style, and it’s not long before we can detect them ourselves.
Over the next couple of hours as we stroll the shady streets of the Village – McDougal (“named after the revolutionary”), Minetta Lane (“once the worst neighbourhood in the area”), Bedford Street (home to New York’s tiniest house dating to 1892 at #75 and the city’s oldest house dating to 1807 at #77) – Michelle covers everything from architecture and urban planning through to the Village’s social and cultural history.
Michelle points out Groove, a bar where Hendrix played, and Café Wha, where Dylan strummed. She tells us about Chumleys’ prohibition-era bar (a topics she has a personal interest in, which we’ll soon share with you) at #86 Bedford, and she takes us to the handsome former molten glass factory (look for the carved glasses on the edifice) of J Goebel & Co, dating to 1865, at #95.
We visit tiny verdant gardens, such as Minetta Triangle (perhaps New York’s smallest?) and Green Streets, and we peek into Grove Court, a lovely garden shaded by taller buildings either side, and prettily fronting what looks like a splendid English country house to us, but which Michelle reveals is a combination of Federal and Greek Revival architecture. Once home to some of the City’s poorest people, it is now highly coveted property.
We wander down Commerce Street – which quickly becomes my favourite Greenwich Village street – by #36, a former factory and brewery (there was once a silo nearby and farmland all around!), and the Cherry Lane Theatre, where Pinter and Shepherd staged plays. Michelle points out #48 an especially sweet example of Greek Revival and, opposite, two delightful symmetrical buildings with a courtyard garden in between.
We stroll down Barrow and Hudson Streets – we’re so close to what was once the edge of the river here, which of course the Dutch, masters at landfill, filled in! – and head for St Lukes in the Fields, one of the oldest churches in the City.
Not content with revealing the Church’s lovely oasis of a garden, Michelle ignores a ‘keep out’ sign to take us into a secluded spot and, hopefully, into the church. Unfortunately the Church is locked as there’s some work going on, and, as we soon discover, we’re also locked in.
“This is embarrassing,” Michelle says, “But don’t worry, I’ll climb the fence and unlock it from the other side. This is why my husband doesn’t like going on walks with me. But, hey, I’m an architect. This is what we do. We’re used to sneaking into places we shouldn’t be to find out things.”
Just as Michelle readies herself for a bit of fence climbing (luckily she’s wearing shorts), a Mexican gardener-cum-security guy appears, shaking his head but smiling, somewhat bemused. Michelle apologises sincerely and sweetly and we scurry out.
It’s not a problem. As travel writers we’re used to sneaking about places too, although we don’t make it a habit of climbing fences. Exploring the Villages of the New York City, especially its secret gardens, is a wonderful way to discover the real New York, as we’re about to find out…