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I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Reliving the History of Greenwich Village with Author John Strausbaugh

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The following post was written by guest blogger, Sue Spiner, Jefferson Market Libary patron and Oral History Interviewer for Your Village, Your Story: Greenwich Village Oral History Project

Photographs in this blog post were taken by Andy Robson.

“Greenwich Village is so steeped in history, there are literally a bazillion stories of this, the most famous neighborhood in the world.  Coming together in this tiny spec of real estate, people bounced off each other to become the cultural center of the country and the world.  I could have written 6 books on this topic,” said Strausbaugh in his opening remarks at Jefferson Market Library.

Last night the celebrated author John Strausbaugh provided the 50+ attendees with an engaging and rapid-fire recap of his encyclopedic, 624-page book, The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, as part of New York Public Library's Your Village, Your Story: Greenwich Village Oral History Project. Strausbaugh took the audience on a raucous ride through the history of the Village beginning in the mid-1600’s when the Village was a place where the 500 residents of New Amsterdam ‘summered’ throughout the streams and farms that were part of upper Manhattan.

In 1822 after yellow fever broke out in lower Manhattan, people fled the area for cleaner air.  The Village became a satellite area where rooming houses were quickly built to house the refugees, and the Village as we know it was born.  As the grid system moved past the neighborhood, artists, writers, poets, musicians, political radicals and others moved into the area because building heights and density of housing was low... and so were the rents.  "Fizzy with collaboration" was a quote Strausbaugh selected from poet Kenneth Koch to describe the reason so many cultural misfits headed to this one Manhattan neighborhood, which led to many decades of producing the unforgettable art, music, poetry, newspapers, political movements and cultural norms that we continue to celebrate today. 

The Jefferson Market Branch of The New York Public Library has been meeting the needs of the people of this neighborhood for over forty years.  The building was used as a courthouse until 1945, sitting next to the  House of Detention (the "House of D" was a nickname).  One hundred years before the library, people in the neighborhood got their information across the street at the Old Grapevine Tavern, where the term “I heard it through the grapevine” was first used

“The Village may be seriously over this time,” said Strausbaugh lamenting that the neighborhood as we currently know it is filled with people who consume art and culture, but don’t develop it.  Your Village, Your Story: Greenwich Village Oral History Project is looking to dispel this myth, archiving oral history stories from today’s Village that are rich in creativity and continue the proud heritage we’ve inherited from all of those who came before us.  We've collected stories from notables such as Ralph Lee, who founded the Village Halloween Parade to Wayne Conti who is keeping the dream of great reading alive at Mercer Book Store. The project is collecting oral histories that will be part of a circulating collection at Jefferson Market Library and plans are coming together to present the collection to Manuscripts and Archives at The Schwarzman Building so future generations can listen to these stories as well.

Our final public event for the project will by on Friday, April 25th from 6:30 - 8:30pm at the Jefferson Market Library where we will celebrate our work in capturing memories of the Village’s current residents and their remembrances of the people, places and things that continue to make the Village "fizzy with collaboration."  Everyone who is a storyteller, interviewer or just a lover of the Village is welcome to attend and provide their own favorite mini-memory of what makes the Village the most celebrated neighborhood in the world, and to memorialize our little spec of real estate we are privileged to call home.

As I walked down the street last week, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two NYU students.  One said to the other, “I can’t believe I have the opportunity to live in Greenwich Village, the greatest place in the world.  Everyday I wake up and think how lucky I am to be here.”  We agree with him, we are so lucky to be part of this project that will continue to archive the history of the Village today, and have it be part of the on-going archive of the greatest place in the world. 

About this Project

Your Village, Your Story: Greenwich Village Oral History Project is an oral history project that works to both preserve and document neighborhood history through the stories of longtime residents. This project will collect stories of people who have lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years, train community members to conduct these interviews, and share all interviews in a public archive and on the New York Public Library website, using these recordings as a springboard for public programming and community dialogue.

Get Involved

Interested in telling your Greenwich Village story? Please contact Frank Collerius (FrankCollerius@nypl.org) at Jefferson Market Library.

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