An Englishman in New York — Don’t Look Back

This is based on my experiences of a trip to New York City a few years ago and, at the risk of pushing my luck (which I always do) I’m recounting this tale in a haibun format (= prose + haiku)…

In a 1989 interview, Bob Dylan commented “The worst times of my life were when I tried to find something from the past. Like when I went back to New York for the second time. I didn’t know what to do, everything had changed.”

Twenty years on from that interview, in early 2009 I was on a business trip to New York for a tech show and, having managed to blag myself a storytelling gig at the Cornelia Street Cafe, took advantage of some free time (and some halfway decent weather — my visit fell midway between two blizzards) to spend a Sunday exploring Greenwich Village.

Unlike Dylan, this was my first time in the Village however a lifetime of reading about the Beats, the folk-revival of the early 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the crime novels of Kinky Friedman, had left me with an impression of what the Village had been like — and how I hoped it would still be. Armed with a copy of Bill Morgan’s excellent 1997 but already frighteningly out of date guide book The Beat Generation in New York — a walking tour of Jack Kerouac’s city (City Lights Books) I made way down through Times Square, on past the Flat Iron Building and Madison Square Gardens and finally on into the Village, by way of New York University and Washington Square.

At the Flat Iron Building, a man tells his son

“It’s famous, it featured in a Spiderman movie.”

There’s an old black & white photograph by Kaoru Sekine showing Allen Ginsberg reading poetry to a crowd in Washington Square in the early 1960s. There are even people sitting up in the trees, listening to him. Bob Dylan gave impromptu performances here when he first arrived in New York. It was also around this time the police started to get heavy with unauthorised gatherings because “folksingers have been bringing too many undesirable elements into the park.” Undesirable elements in those times meant teenagers, blacks people and beatniks.

Sitting in trees…

“Undesirables”

listening to poetry

And now? When I got there, most of the park was off limits, the scene of a major landscaping, reconstruction and gentrification project — tho apparently the project has been stalled by legal disputes, because the plans involved cutting down some ancient trees. As if there should be trees in a park anyway! The small part still open was the circle of permanent chess tables and a scruffy patch of earth where New Yorkers took their dogs to shit.

There were no old men playing checkers by the trees that day. By the look of the tables, then exclusively occupied by sleeping tramps and resting drug dealers, nobody had played chess there for a very long time. New York’s apparent attitude to parks and open spaces was best summed up by an official sign listing all the activities that were banned.

No Bicycles, Skates, Scooters or Skateboards. No Pets. No Drugs, Alcohol or Smoking. No Amplifying Sound. No Disorderly Conduct. No Feeding Birds or Squirrels. No Standing on Swings. No Performing or Rallying — Except by Permit. No Bare Feet.

No place for pleasure

or bare naked feet

in the Land of the Free

Elsewhere? Indifferent buildings converted into nail manicuring, eyebrow plucking and skin tanning salons. True, you could still buy bongs and hash-pipes in Greenwich Village — but they were about as authentic as the plastic policemen’s helmets they sell in kiosks along London’s Oxford Street.

In the head-shops — souvenir hash-pipes

that come all the way from China

One place, apparently cut off from the passage of time, was Patchin Place, where the poet e.e.cummings lived and worked for the better part of 40 years. It even retains (according to another guidebook) “its 19th century gas street lamp — one of only two in New York City, and the only one that still gives light, though the light is now electric.” (Surely that makes it just another electric street lamp?) The street’s demographic has however changed dramatically.

Patchin Place: the artists and writers

now outnumbered by therapists

Opposite the entrance to Patchin Place is the tower of the old Jefferson Market Courthouse — a building scheduled for demolition but saved by campaigning conservationists and now a library. And this, is the tragedy of the place. Having been abandoned by the bourgeoise in the early 20th century, Greenwich Village went into decay and, because of its cheap accommodation, became a bohemian enclave of artists studios, musicians pads, coffee bars, jazz cafes, folk clubs, poetry scenes and late night dives.

Ironically this creative success carried with it the seeds of its own destruction as the area’s “character” began to attract back the middle classes. And, they not only set about conserving and gentrifying the area but they also helped push up property prices, forcing out all the artists and musicians who had given the district all its character.

Not content with this, these incomers then started complaining about the few remaining late night spots — demanding they turn the music down, close early and have their licences curtailed so they didn’t disturb decent folk asleep in their beds. CBGBs, the home of punk rock on the corner of Bowery and Bleecker, closed in 2006. And, when I visited, there were just two “original” poetry/spoken word venues still operating: the Bowery Poetry Club and the Cornelia Street Cafe.

The coffee houses have gone. The clubs have gone. The bookstores have gone. And, when I left the Cornelia Street Cafe, late one snowy Tuesday night in early February, the streets were deserted, the people all gone to bed.

Winter’s night in Greenwich Village

– the only living boy in New York

Joyce Johnson, author of the Beat era memoir Minor Characters (and one time girlfriend of Jack Kerouac) describes the fate of Greenwich Village as “condo-ization”.

Same street but Suze has gone and Bob Dylan has done freewheelin’

The late Suze Rotolo (the girl hugging Dylan on the cover of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) in her 2008 autobiography A Freewheelin’ Time, added “Greenwich Village bohemia exists no more. It was the public square of the twentieth century for the outsiders, the mad ones, and the misfits. Today all that remains are the posters, fliers and signs preserved on the walls as a reminder of that bygone era when rents were cheap and New York replaced Paris as the destination for the creative crowd.”

revolutions lost

…when they pave over

the playgrounds of bohemia

The saddest sight I saw was a mural — correction a ‘bohemorama’ — outside a Morton Williams supermarket. Describing the painting as being “dedicated to all aspiring dreamers, outcasts, and gypsies drawn to Greenwich Village life” — the accompanying display board goes on to say “You won’t be alone when you sit outdoors lunching on your sushi or salad bar delights. Not with the likes of Thelonius Monk, Jackson Pollock or Edgar Alan Poe poised just a few feet away!” (The whirring sound you can hear is Jack Kerouac spinning in his grave.)

And the most hopeful sight? A peace sign prominently displayed in a window of the New York University student center building on Washington Square.

Fifty years after…

students still crazy

still protesting, still hopeful

Perhaps you can’t fool all the children of the revolution?

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