A bygone era, lost to time

September 8, 2008 at 8:58 pm 1 comment

If time could stand still, the places I love would never change. Like Greenwich Village, where I lived for several years in the late ’50s. It was the end of the buttoned-down Eisenhower era and the beginning of the Beat Generation, when everyone wore black turtlenecks and gathered in smoky coffeehouses like the San Remo on McDougal Street, now gone.

I shared a spacious apartment on Christopher Street with three other girls (single women were still called girls then), and on a night out we might eat at the Waverly Inn where the ceilings were low, the fireplaces numerous and the comfort food cheap. Under new management, but still not officially opened after two years, the mac and cheese is $55, though it does come with truffles. Celebrities’ limos line up around the block.

Sometimes we went to Chumley’s on Bedford Street, a former speakeasy with an unmarked entrance. The atmosphere, tables carved with initials, walls covered with book covers and author photos, was better than the food. Ernest Hemingway hung out there, among other writers. Chumley’s has been closed since a wall collapsed last year, and renovations are still dragging along. The owners have stored all the furnishings and photos and say they will be open soon. Something tells me it won’t be the same.

The piers along the Hudson River were another favorite haunt. Even though they were mostly pilings then, we could smell the salt air and look at boats plowing past. Now the area has been reincarnated as Hudson River Park. With its bike paths and gardens and modernist gazebos it all sounds rather gentrified to me.

Besides the Christopher Street Pier, there was the Gansevoort Pier near the meatpacking district, where we stepped over gutters running with blood to watch ships leaving the harbor. For a 50 cent contribution to the Longshoremen’s Fund, we could join a bon voyage party when the Swedish or Dutch lines sailed. But we always checked in first with our dockworker friend Okie, who knew when the mob would be dumping bodies.

The meatpacking district then was the grittiest in the entire city. Now it is the trendiest. Uptowners and out-of-towners must enjoy slumming once the danger is gone, but I find the whole thing a pretentious bore.

There was no artificiality in the old Village, unless you count the fusty cobwebs sprayed on the exposed ceiling beams at Julius’s on West 10th. The White Horse Tavern on Hudson, site of Dylan Thomas’ fatal drinking spree, certainly put on no airs. Nor did the Old Homestead Restaurant with its fake cow out front.

I would leave my job on Madison Avenue, take the IRT subway to the Sheridan Square stop and head west on Christopher Street. I could smell the coffee roasting at McNulty’s Tea & Coffee. Next to it was the Theatre de Lys, where “The Three Penny Opera” seemed to run forever, then my building at 125.

This was the Village, and it was home.

Helen Bechdel

Centre Daily Times


Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. potheadpanache  |  September 14, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I love this, it makes me wish I could have lived there. It’s all a great big bore now. I hope whatever history is left isn’t knocked down to build another disgraceful NYU dormitory.


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