Telling the Story of (the Real) Greenwich Village

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In the 1980s, my boyfriend and I were extremely enthusiastic new residents of Greenwich Village. We immediately signed up for a walking tour and joined the local preservation groups. The leader of one of them shared his philosophy: when you live in the suburbs, it’s a given that you do yardwork; when you live in the city, your yardwork consists of rallying, and writing letters, and attending hearings to keep the invasive species at bay.

We took this notion to heart. How valiantly we advocated for a simple green park on the-then derelict Hudson River waterfront. How hard we battled greedy development schemes and dumb municipal ideas like docking a permanent prison boat on the Hudson waterfront. We frequented community board meetings, worked tables at street fairs, got Pete Seeger to play a benefit concert. One long, sweltering Saturday, a small group of us volunteers cleaned up a mile-long stretch of ancient trash wedged into the bulkhead of the Hudson.

At the time, I was fresh from Columbia with an MFA in nonfiction and was embarking on a career as a freelance writer. Before long, I was specializing in urban issues for Metropolis and other magazines. And then I specialized one notch further and began writing for The Villager weekly paper, and more recently, The Village Sun website.

I’ve written stinging opinion pieces about the pro-developer bias at various city agencies. I’ve written features and news pieces. I’ve sat cross-legged on the studio floor with the worried manager of Integral Yoga when they lost the health-food store that was their anchor tenant. I may be the only non-inspector who’s been on a tour of the basement meat lockers at Western Beef. When beloved neighborhood spots like Tortilla Flats and the Cornelia Street Café closed after one rent hike too many, I wrote the post-mortems.

Writing itself is also an act of preservation.

In the process, I also amassed close to a hundred columns. The roominess and possibility of columns excited me, as well as the way they could express the intersection of the personal and the societal: trying to understand the 2004 presidential election while reading good vs. evil bedtime stories to my sons; rethinking norms about human consumption when our bathroom was being rebuilt and we went a year without a shower; and so on.

Columns brought me closer to the writing I secretly wanted to do most of all: fiction. As a new Villager, I was lucky to find a life-changing fiction master class at The Writers Studio, its classroom a tenement living room a few blocks from home. I slowly learned my new craft, starting with two-page assignments and building up to short stories. I fantasized about a life in which I might call freelancing my day job.

In the meantime, the kids came along. They went to school. The Village got richer. It grew harder for little bands of grassroots organizers to stave off the ever more deep-pocketed, well-connected developers. I shifted my volunteering energy to the kids’ schools.

Then I decided it was time to do the thing: write a novel. Naturally it would be an homage to my beautiful but ever more gentrification-fractured Village. Slowly, haltingly I developed the necessary sitzfleisch. I made up a cast of Village characters, in both senses of the word: a tour guide and her tourists, a yuppie realtor, a local reporter, an aged pioneer of the downtown theater scene. I thought about local tragedies—yellow fever epidemics, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 9/11—and made up a new one, this time in Washington Square, so that the stakes would be high enough to warrant the 300 or so pages of a novel. My story was shaping up to be about mortality and friendship and survival, with this quotation from Grace Paley always in the back of my mind: “the real question is—how are we to live our lives?” All that firsthand experience and journalism gave me a good solid foundation.

A novel is an exploration of character and place and themes but it’s also a thing you make, like any other craft, by doing it wrong a bunch of times first. Here, my nonfiction training served me poorly. I’ve now been a teacher at The Writers Studio for many years (so long that I’m now helping train the next generation of teachers), and I tell my students that fiction doesn’t work like nonfiction, may even be its opposite, emerging from a different hemisphere of the brain. This is a lesson it takes many of us fiction writers a long time to learn—not just professional writers like me, but anyone with a K-12 education. We’re used to getting good grades for explaining everything right up front, connecting all the dots for the reader.

Fiction derives its power in other, less tangible ways: subtle interplay between what’s withheld and what’s revealed and when; language that does the double duty of creating the characters’ worlds and carrying the underlying mood. In fiction, you have to get out of the story’s way and let it unfold, leaving room for the reader do some of the work.

While I was figuring out how to do all this, I made like a journalist. I talked to the police precinct (which got a little nervous when I started asking about explosives). I put my bike on the commuter train and rode around Mamaroneck, a town that figures in the story but that I’d never visited. My luckiest break, I feel funny saying, came in the dark days after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. My story had grown bossy by this time, demanding that I write convincingly about a fictional blackout. Because I had managed to miss all the big ones in New York, I spent that week madly jotting notes.

In writing, I try to bear witness to a rapidly receding way of life.

One of the novel’s story lines traces the complicated relationship between my protagonist Becca and her nemesis Melora, who at the beginning of the novel share a rear property wall but little else. Becca, who’s eking out a living giving walking tours, is stuck in a fifth-floor walkup, having never lived anywhere else. Melora arrived in the Village in the 1980s and occupies an entire renovated 19th-century brick townhouse on the next block.

My experience differs from both of theirs. We have lived only in two converted turn-of-the-20th-century warehouses, both very much on the wrong side of the tracks, the tracks being a three-block segment of the High Line below Gansevoort Street that was later demolished (despite our desperate attempts in the 90s to save it). We have been the only residential building on our block, with a meat smoke house, building-supply company and an S.R.O. hotel for neighbors.

I have another treasured Village educational institution to thank for my creation of Becca’s and Melora’s domiciles, which happen not to exist in the real Village, but could. For three years each in the 90s, our two sons attended West Village Nursery School, an incubator for lifelong friendships among kids and parents alike. The closer we edged to the fin de siècle, the more alarming the chasm grew between the haves and have-nots. For one afterschool playdate I’d be trudging with my toddler and a folded stroller up dim tiled stairways into the kind of apartment where the kitchen sink doubled as the bathtub. Another day we’d be whisked—I am not kidding—into a chauffeured car and taken a few blocks away to a perfectly restored townhouse occupied by a single family, complete with elevator and live-in nanny.

The tenements haven’t gone away. But now, what with the Whitney Museum, High Line and Little Island nearby, the West Village feels like the white-hot center of the universe. New luxury construction surrounds us. Co-op prices have gone up tenfold. We couldn’t believe our luck at getting to live in the nonconformist, low-rise Village with its winding lanes, rich literary and maritime history, theaters and music. Now Hermès is in the Gansevoort meat market and Tiffany’s has a popup on West Fourth.

Sometimes I feel guilty for turning inward to personal writing projects and leaving the urban yardwork to others. I worry that the tradition of local activism is being lost. The newcomers have all sunk such fortunes into their homes that they’re skittish about their investment and not necessarily attuned to protecting what’s left of the spirit and the 19th-century fabric that attracted them to the Village in the first place.

But then I realize that writing itself is also an act of preservation. In writing, I try to bear witness to a rapidly receding way of life. I honor the forgotten tenement dwellers, the ones who found a way to survive. Sometimes I imagine bumping into Becca in Abingdon Square. I lean down to pet Carny, her ancient Bassett hound, and I strike up conversation, as Villagers do. Despite our differences, I like to think Becca would greet me as a landsman.


Save the Village

Save the Village by Michele Herman is available via Regal House Publishing.