Greenwich Village: The Neighborhood 1907

No part of the City of New York has so good a claim to antiquity as Greenwich Village. Before Henry Hudson sailed up the great River, or New Amsterdam was thought of, this spot was the site of an Indian village, called "Sappokanican."  After the Indians were driven out by the Dutch in 1633, it finally came under English rule, about 1721, and its name was changed to Greenwich. This name still clings to the district. The village was famous in Colonial times for its healthful location, its charming river beach, the fertility of its soil, and its fragrant abundance of wild grapes, strawberries, and other fruits. So inviting a spot soon had many settlers, at first
only farmers and artisans, until several epidemics drove people from the town of New York to the higher ground of the healthful little village.

In 1744, Sir Peter Warren bought 300 acres near the river for his country home. During the next sixty years the village became the summer home of many wealthy New Yorkers. The road to Greenwich was the fashionable drive of the period. "Richmond Hill" was the name of the country place of Abraham Mortier, Commissary to his Majesty's forces, and here Lord Amherst was entertained. For a time this mansion was the headquarters of General Washington, after the war it was the home of Vice-president Adams, until, in 1797, Aaron Burr became its owner. This was only one of the many beautiful homes in the village.

The coming of all this fashionable society greatly stimulated the growth of the village. It became famous for its markets—Greenwich, State Prison, Jefferson, and Clinton Markets. The State Prison was built there in 1796, at the foot of the present Tenth Street, and continued in use for thirty years, until it was superseded by Sing Sing. Some idea of the low cost of living at that time in the village may be inferred from the fact that the three meals a day for the 235 persons in the prison are reported to have cost but $10.11. The great epidemic of 1822 caused such an exodus to Greenwich from New York that it's village life ceased, and it became a bustling part of a great city, and its history that of the City of New York.

The boundaries of Greenwich Village in Colonial times were a little brook called Manetta Creek, or Water, and the River. The district has practically the same extent to-day, though not so sharply defined. Broadly speaking, what has been known for many years as Greenwich is that part of New York extending from lower Fifth Avenue and West Broadway to the Hudson River, and Housing conditions from Fourteenth Street to Canal Street. This is the location of the district chosen for this investigation. It is the part of old New York that has retained its village features the longest. It is the last to lose its old-fashioned houses and become a tenement district. Its character has changed wonderfully in the last ten years. The old two- and three-story houses, with their quaint doorways and gabled roofs, are being rapidly torn down to make way for large tenements, or are being altered for the use of three or four or even more families. It is a district of extremes in housing conditions. The crowded Italian tenements on Macdougal, Thompson, and Sullivan streets are almost neighbors to fashionable Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue. West of Sixth Avenue there are many irregular, rambling old streets, with rows of comfortable old-fashioned houses, well kept and owned for generations by the families still occupying them. These houses and this part of the present population of Greenwich Village are, of course, entirely without the province of an inquiry into the lives of the workingmen, who are rapidly becoming the most numerous inhabitants of the district.

The old houses now occupied by several families are somewhat run down, but dignified even in their decay. At the other extreme are cheap tenements of the "double-decker' "dumb-bell" type, tumble-down rear houses, and several very disreputable " courts" and short streets, sometimes containing tenements scarcely fit for human habitation.

The very poor frequently live in houses whose sanitary conditions and general character are as bad as can be found anywhere in New York. The whole neighborhood is in a state of transition, and its rapidly increasing population is changing the external features of the district. As yet, it is not so crowded as the lower East Side of New York, and can still retain many of its former individual characteristics. The population is very heterogeneous and is also rapidly changing in character. It is much more typical of the entire working-class population of New York than is the Jewish East Side. Here are many Americans whose families have lived in the district for generations, who have a strong local pride in Old Greenwich, and who greatly deplore the passing of its traditions; here are the Irish and Irish-Americans, the politicians of the Ninth Ward; and here are also to be found many French and German families, the remnants of a once large French and German quarter of the city. Until recently these nationalities largely predominated in the district. There was also a large colored quarter. Within the last few years the population has become much more cosmopolitan, and now has representatives of almost every nationality to be found in New York. For several years the Italians have come in steadily increasing numbers until now it is one of the important Italian quarters in the city. In the block in which Greenwich House is situated, though on the edge of the real Italian quarter, a neighborhood canvass (in 1904) showed there were 115 Italian families out of a total number of 296, while the census for 1900 reported no Italian families for that block. The racial feeling is often very strong. The Irish hate the Italians (" Dagos ") and the negroes ("niggers"), and the North Italians despise the Sicilians. There can be no common social life nor unity of interests where there is such a diversity of nationalities. Yet, because of this mixture of native and foreign elements, Greenwich Village is notably a district in which to study the social and industrial life of workingmen's families of different races.

The occupations of the wage-earners are even more varied than is the population. There is no one highly concentrated industry as that of the garment-makers Of the East Side, but a great diversity of trades and occupations. It is a district largely given over to candy, paper-box, and artificial-flower factories, and to wholesale houses. Its proximity to the North River and the docks of the great steamship lines gives occupation to many longshoremen, or dock-laborers, and to truck-drivers. Probably these occupations give employment to a larger number of men than does any other one industry. A great many clerks live here, as well as porters, waiters, carpenters, painters, plumbers, factory-workers, foremen in factories, barbers, bootblacks, bookkeepers, letter-carriers, policemen, and petty shopkeepers. All kinds of skilled and unskilled labor are represented. There is probably a larger proportion of unskilled than of skilled laborers in the district.

The personal characteristics of the working people are generally those of their nationality, and are in no respect characteristics of exceptional to the neighborhood. Their social life consists of the usual diversions—the public balls, cheap theatres, the christening parties, and the clambakes and free excursions given by local politicians in summer. The Italians have their fetes and church festivals.

The men have the saloons, political clubs, trade-unions, or lodges for their recreation, the young people have an occasional ball or go to a cheap theatre, and in the evenings congregate on the streets and in the small parks for their pleasure, while the mothers have almost no recreation, only a dreary round of work, day after day, with occasionally a door-step gossip to vary the monotony of their lives. The Settlements and institutional churches are giving more social opportunity for the mothers and young people.

Intemperance is a flagrant evil. It is especially striking among the women, and the habit of sending children to the saloons for beer is very common. There is frequently a low ethical standard—for example, petty thieving among boys is common and is condoned, "jumping the rent" is often not considered dishonest. There is often an indifference to church ties and to religious creeds. On the other hand, one finds moral characteristics which an outsider little suspects a spirit of charity and mutual helpfulness, a disposition to aid one poorer than one's self, to help a man when he is down, and to bear courageously and cheerfully an almost intolerable situation, and frequently a beautiful and unselfish devotion of a mother to her children. Emerson found that "in the mud and scum of things, there always, always something sings''. One Settlement resident has said truly: "Much moral unloveliness may be explained by the conditions under which men live and work."

Greenwich House is admirably located for a study of all these neighborhood conditions. It is situated on a short street, only a block long, which is so set apart by itself as to retain many of the aspects of a village community. The people, until the recent invasion of so many Italians, knew their neighbors, and there is still a spirit of neighborliness and interest in all the residents of "the street". There are some American families in which the parents were married on this street and have always lived here. The Irish still predominate in numbers, but the entire street is representative of the cosmopolitan elements of the neighborhood and of its varied industrial life. The residents come into very close touch with the daily life of their neighbors, and their intercourse with them is unusually friendly, natural, and responsive. The friendships formed here, and the influence of the Settlement in the neighborhood, are not confined to a single block. Members of its Clubs and Classes come from all parts of the district, and the Settlement is a recognized part of the life of the entire neighborhood.

Every neighborhood has its own characteristic features. "Old Greenwich" has its traditions, its unique housing conditions, its heterogeneous population, its diversity of occupations, and its moral characteristics and ethical standards, but for a district in which to study the actual living conditions of the New York workingman and his family in their social, economic, and industrial relations, it is not exceptional, and may be taken as fairly representative of the conditions existing in many industrial communities in our large cities.

Website: The History
Article Name: Greenwich Village: The Neighborhood 1907
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Wage-earners' Budgets: A Study of Standards and Cost of Living in New York City by Louise Bolard More. Henry Holt and Company-New York 1907
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