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Book Review: Greenwich Village Stories

Book Review: Greenwich Village Stories

October 13, 2014 | By Kira Blayne Manso Brown
Article from the Fall 2014 Newsletter

“Walking through the Village is to brush against immortality,” editor Judith Stonehill writes in the forward to Greenwich Village Stories: A Collection of Memories, published in March of this year. A compendium of remembrances about the Village, this book offers contributions from Wynton Marsalis, Graydon Carter, Donna Karan, Ed Koch, Calvin Trillin, and other illustrious individuals. Along with poetry and prose, Greenwich Village Stories includes photographs and other illustrations that nicely capture the distinctive architecture of the Village and brings it into the narrative as a secondary character. Greenwich Village Stories is an enjoyable compilation for anyone who has felt a connection to the Village through the diversity of experience the neighborhood accepts and nurtures.

Long thought of as a bohemian gathering place, the Village has been home to, and inspiration for, numerous intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians, and chefs, and Greenwich Village Stories draws on the memories of contemporary luminaries to shed light on this multi-layered heritage. Co-published by Universe and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the book succeeds in reminding readers of not just the unique legacy of bricks and mortar in this area, with its many historic structures, but also, in the words of contributor Jonathan Adler, of the “magical fairy dust of the Village.” The reminiscences reveal how the physical reality of the neighborhood intertwines with the cultural fantasy of “The Village”; not surprisingly, these remembrances filter through many perspectives: from windows, stoops, sidewalks, and storefronts.  Hence, the Village’s built environment both mirrors and fosters the intimacy of the lives presented.  Brownstones and street corners bear witness to neighborhood happenings, and this particular sedimentation of cultural legacy is preserved in the connection Village residents have to their surroundings as well as to each other.

While the book’s various segments are strong enough to stand alone, together they create a powerful reminder of the importance of collecting narratives so as to harness remembrances into a formation that gives a collective shape to a place historically and contemporarily. At a time when neighborhoods are threatened by development and other disruptions that threaten scale and character, the content of Greenwich Village Stories reminds us of the energy that comes from sharing the past. Hence, a sense of dynamic vitality comes with recalling the intimacy of Wynton Marsalis’ subterranean nightclubs, on one hand, and the neighborly interactions in Mario Batali’s favorite shops on a Sunday on the other.

For those of us who are dedicated to recounting the story of preservation, Greenwich Village Stories helps us remember and revisit, with fresh eyes, the genuine goal of historic preservation: keeping a special neighborhood special in its own way. Ultimately, Greenwich Village Stories makes us want to answer the call to arms posed by contributor Karen Finley in her poem, “For Historic Preservation,” where she asks the question,  “What would Jackie do?”—a reference to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s efforts on behalf of preservation in New York.  This book demonstrates the importance of maintaining historic character and human scale in a neighborhood. As Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter so precisely tells us, we should “keep it that way.”

Above: Cover of "Greenwich Village Stories"; Courtesy of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Universe