Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Bodyby Sally Banes, Sally Banes
This book does not aim to document comprehensively the extraordinarily rich activity in New York City in the early 1960's. Instead, the author focuses on one year, 1963. This was the most productive year of the period 1958-64, the transition between the Fifties and Sixties. The author also focuses on one other place---Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. For it was primarily here, in a place already historically and culturally mythologized as avant-garde terrain, that the emerging generation of vanguard artists lived, worked, socialized, and remade the history of the avant-garde. - from the Introduction.
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Greenwich Village 1963
Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body
By Sally Banes
Duke University PressCopyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
In his essay "Of Other Spaces," Michel Foucault invents a new term: heterotopia. Heterotopias, he explains, "are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted Utopia in which ... all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted." Utopias may serve as analogies or inversions of a culture, but utopias are fictional, not real spaces. Heterotopias, on the other hand, are real spaces that simultaneously reflect and contest society. Often, they are sites of deviance, like prisons and mental hospitals. The same countersite may serve different functions at different times in a society's history. Heterotopias are capable, as in theaters and gardens, of symbolically juxtaposing several spaces in a single space. And often they are rendered both penetrable and isolated by systems of entrances and exits.
In our modern culture, Foucault argues, there are heterotopias both of illusion and compensation—the latter type serving as a model more perfect and more ordered (as in certain colonies) than its original. I want to propose Greenwich Village as a heterotopia of the nation in the early Sixties, but one that offers an inverse compensation. That is, Greenwich Village is a heterotopia more free, more disordered, less "perfect" than the other real spaces of American society, a society, it was felt by some, that was becoming increasingly bureaucratized and technocratic. This chapter will be concerned with Greenwich Village as that mythic space of dissent: its history, its geography, and its genealogy.
Greenwich Village: A History
The [Washington Square] arch in the winter of 1916 was the scene of a quaint and unusual revolution. John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp with several of their Bohemian artist friends climbed the narrow staircase through the steel door on the west side. On reaching the top they spread out hot water bags to sit on, opened food and wine, lit Japanese lanterns and blew up red balloons. They read poems, fired cap pistols and with a grand shout, John Sloan declared Greenwich Village "a Free Republic, Independent of Uptown."
This anecdote, taken from Greenwich Village, Fred McDarrah's 1963 guidebook, provides a suggestive figure for the history and myth of "the Village," in terms of both the performance itself and the way it is described. "Quaint," "unusual," "revolutionary": the Village as packaged in the early Sixties spiced tradition with eccentricity but tempered rebellion with frivolity. There is even a hint of ethnographic distance in the use of the word "quaint," as if the artists whom McDarrah chronicles were not only removed chronologically but constituted an exotic, alien tribe whose daily lives and rituals were so inexplicable that they were reduced to senseless pranks.
The very use of this particular anecdote signals a Sixties' ambivalence toward the "tradition" of the avant-garde. For despite McDarrah's presentation of the Sloan/Duchamp performance as remote and inscrutable, its meaning is clear and fits neatly with his own interpretation of Greenwich Village in 1963 as the site of a cultural renaissance—a revivified heterotopia. In fact, McDarrah's choice of this particular performance underscores the continuity of the avant-garde, for in 1963, nearly fifty years later, Duchamp was still living in Greenwich Village and attending some of the performances analyzed in this book.
Duchamp's "occupation" of the venerable monument remakes political revolution into cultural rebellion with an event that is festive (with its wine and food), artistic (with its poetry readings), exotic (with its Japanese lanterns), playful (with its cap pistols and balloons), and leftist (the balloons, after all, are red). It is also a strident statement of bohemian libertarian community ("a Free Republic") and a call for an alternative culture, autonomous from bourgeois ("Uptown") life, but at a barricade made comfortable with hot water bags. Moreover, this declaration of independence is a performance/demonstration—an enacted, not a written, manifesto. It is a parodic gesture, but its antic, concrete form affirms a radical cultural-political project. Duchamp's performance ratified Washington Square as a monument of the avant-garde.
In the early Sixties, when New York City was undergoing massive demolitions, reforms, and building construction, Greenwich Village was acutely conscious of its historical character in a number of respects: as an elegant landmark district, as a bohemia, and as an ethnic neighborhood. Indeed, it was self-consciously a steadfast village, with several interwoven histories, that its residents thought managed (partly through long-standing geographic isolation) to preserve the warmth of face-to-face, "authentic" experience in the midst of escalating metropolitan anonymity. City commissioners might target various buildings and blocks for urban renewal, make plans to reroute traffic, and close down coffeehouses; New York University might buy more and more land ringing Washington Square. But various Village people and organizations would instantaneously respond to such projects, submitting their own plans and designs, meeting with officials to find compromise solutions, or taking the city to court. This is how Villagers represented their neighborhood, both to themselves and to outsiders, in publications ranging from the Village Voice weekly newspaper to McDarrah's guidebook.
In this section I want to examine McDarrah's Greenwich Village as one of the texts of the Village's self-conception, showing how he rehearses the history of this heterotopia. McDarrah's Greenwich Village was an imaginatively constructed setting, not only for the specific performances I will be analyzing here, but for a larger, metaphoric performance in which Villagers fashioned themselves and their place. While McDarrah certainly romanticizes aspects of the Village, and in many ways interprets it quite differently than I will, I do not intend the words "imaginative" and "performance" to be taken here as derogatory. For my purposes, what is interesting is not the accuracy of his assessments, but what those comments tell us about the values and preoccupations of the era—what kind of consciousness they express. In other words, McDarrah's book itself is a barometer of the time. McDarrah's potted history of Greenwich Village is, secondarily, useful for contextualizing the artists and performances I will discuss. But it must always be understood as a document produced and constrained by its cultural moment, rather than as a bundle of objective or neutral "facts."
In his introduction to McDarrah's book, David Boroff writes that the Village "is no single entity. It is, in fact, a congeries of communities ... whose citizenry ranges from unimpeachably middle-class types to real Bohemians." Both types, when interviewed, told Boroff that the Village was important to them for its "human dimension," its neighborhood atmosphere that somehow made both intimacy and autonomy simultaneously possible (but neither type mentioned the Italian or African American ethnic populations). Greenwich Village was, Boroff thought, a close community, with an unusually high degree of tolerance and diversity, traits that turned it into a "laboratory in democratic living."
"Is it possible within a city to have the equivalent of a small town with its democratic rule and its fierce concern with local issues?" Boroff asked, and he answered: "Greenwich Village, with its formidably vocal organizations, has demonstrated that such local concern is possible." It was one of the few places in the United States, he also pointed out, where interracial couples could feel comfortable—although he did not perceive the contradiction that this liberal racial tolerance was, in 1963, a violation of most small-town values. For Boroff and McDarrah, the eclectic array of architectural styles and the neighborhood's very streets—which slanted and wound about the map, refusing to fit into the metropolitan grid—symbolized the Village's nonconformism.
But while the authors praised the small-town character of the Village, they were equally enthusiastic about its more commercial features (though Boroff noted with some surprise that "oddly enough, the cultural ferment which attracted people to the Village in the first place may prove to be its undoing"). The very publishers, bookstores, theaters, jazz clubs, and coffeehouses that served as outlets for the artists who lived there made Greenwich Village an entertainment center for outsiders, from New York itself and beyond, and a gold mine for real estate developers, whose projects had already begun to raise Village rents and displace the artists eastward.
The publication of McDarrah's guidebook (by Corinth, the publishing wing of E. Wilentz's Eighth Street Bookstore) was, of course, itself an index of that tourist market. It purveyed the "exotic" present but offered a standardized history of the Village—a history that ritually praised the nonconformism and communitas of the neighborhood but ritually bemoaned its threatened demise. It packaged Greenwich Village as an alternative historical Williamsburg, Virginia—a living museum of American bohemia.
McDarrah is torn between celebrating the Village as bizarre and as staid, as eternal and as changing, as separate from New York City and as central to it, as seriously authentic and as entertainment. Each extreme is balanced by its opposite. And somehow all these contradictions are resolved as inexplicably characteristic of the Village, as creating a dialectical, kaleidoscopic vitality. This resolution is motivated by the suggestion that, in the end, the Village can be all things to all people, a spiritual cornucopia or melting pot—offering the best features of both urban and village living. Yet more deeply rooted (indeed, barely noticeable on the surface of the text) is an ambivalence toward these qualities, perhaps even a lament that the Village is already a paradise lost. Before I show that this is a familiar, perennial lament, let me briefly present McDarrah's version of Village history.
In McDarrah's account the history of Greenwich Village's settlement begins with its annexation from the Sapokanikan by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The area from Minetta Brook to the Hudson River, called Bossen Bouwerie, became the Dutch governor's personal estate. Under British colonial rule a small town grew up in the area, a northern suburb of New York City proper (which at that time occupied only the tip of Manhattan). A single road—now Greenwich Street—connected the Village with the city. (For McDarrah, this theme of separateness is key to the neighborhood's identity. But the contradictory notion of the Village as the center of New York City is always coupled with this theme of its isolation.) By the end of the eighteenth century Greenwich Village still provided a semirural highland spot to escape the smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera epidemics raging through the town, but a thriving neighborhood soon developed when the rest of the city was quarantined. "During the epidemics ... Greenwich Village became the center of the metropolis."
In 1811, when the hills of New York City were leveled and the gridiron street plan imposed, according to McDarrah the Villagers protested, and while the hills did disappear, the winding streets and irregular blocks remained, "helping to create the atmosphere that makes the Village a community distinct from the rest of the city." McDarrah describes this battle as "the first of a yet-to-cease onslaught to make the Village conform to the physical pattern of New York." He constantly states this theme throughout the book. The energy abounding in the Village in the Sixties, it is implied, stemmed partly from its self-avowedly embattled position in staking out its traditional claims—which McDarrah sees as harking back to this time—to uphold and balance the conflicting values of community and individuality, separateness and centrality, creativity and freedom. The discreteness and nonconformity of the Village's geography neatly serves as a figure for its cultural uniqueness.
McDarrah briefly traces the myriad elements of the Greenwich Village melting pot. In the mid-nineteenth century first the Irish, then southern blacks, and then Italians settled into tenement houses south of Washington Square. Wealthier families moved uptown (making former stables, studios, and apartments available at low rents), and so by 1910 Greenwich Village began to attract artists and writers. McDarrah sums up the fluctuations of the various bohemias since the turn of the century with the myth already immortalized in the popular imagination: "They espoused Free Love, Free Speech, Radicalism, Marxism, Socialism and bizarre forms of eccentricity, read the Masses and wrote books."
There are hidden histories of Greenwich Village that do not appear in McDarrah's book. In the context of tracing the history of jazz in Greenwich Village, Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) has pointed out that it was the families of eleven African American men, formerly indentured servants, who originally settled the Village in 1644, eighteen years after they arrived in New Amsterdam. One of the conditions of their manumission was that they move to the settlement's outskirts, the "tangled swamp" that would become Greenwich Village. An African American theater company operated the Grove Theater at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Streets in the 1820s, and there were black musicians playing in theaters stretching along Houston Street. Until poor working-class whites set fire to the black housing in 1863, killing or injuring more than a thousand people, there was a thriving African American community in the Village. After the Civil War, waves of southern blacks arrived to form a new community there, although the Village was no longer the center of African American life in New York. Baraka's interest in rediscovering the history of the Village and reappropriating it as a symbolic space—but for traditional African American culture, rather than a middle-class white avant-garde—underscores the identity of the Village as an imaginary terrain that needs to be claimed.
McDarrah's history leaps from the 1910s to the present. "Since the second World War the traditional Bohemian Village has experienced a dramatic change with the rise of luxury buildings, soaring rents, the loss of some fine old landmarks, the acquisitions of New York University in the Washington Square area, urban renewal and high priced entertainment." But this is nothing new, he points out. Someone has always turned a profit from the bohemian atmosphere of the neighborhood. This, too, is part of Village life, he seems to admit, despite the protests against urban renewal and development that thread through the rest of die book. McDarrah concludes:
As time passed, the Existentialists came, The Silent Generation, The Beat Generation, The Conservative Generation all to compose the ever-changing, curious make-up of the Village community ... an island still very much set off from the rest of the city by the freedom of style of its citizens as well as its physical make-up, inhabited by a variety of people so diverse that their only point of agreement is the necessity for maintaining their community ... Greenwich Village, (ellipses in original)
For McDarrah, despite his regretful mention of such ugly realities as New York University's destruction of landmark buildings and the presence of the Women's House of Detention in the Village Square, Greenwich Village is above all a "day-to-day festival," epitomized by the scene in its central gathering place, Washington Square Park (the site of the 1916 Sloan/ Duchamp secession):
On foot, on bicycles, on motor scooters and taxis, in baby carriages or sight seeing buses, whatever conveyance carries them, everyone gathers here, cats and babies, artists and intellectuals, bankers and beatniks, zen buddhists and swamis, shoe clerks and writers.... The fountain is the heart of the Village for it is here on a summer Sunday that Villagers gather to pick at banjos, shoot photographs, sunbathe, spin yo-yos, twirl lassos, protest nonviolently, write poetry, shoot offbeat movies, meet friends or just plain talk. All that is missing is a community bulletin board.
This celebration of a fertile, carnivalesque diversity within unity gives McDarrah the model for his book. His conceptual map of the Village promiscuously mixes venerable old landmarks (like the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, which furnished George Washington's inauguration Bible, and the Grove Street house of Tom Paine) with monuments of old bohemia (such as Mabel Dodge's salon at 23 Fifth Avenue and the Liberal Club and Provincetown Playhouse, both on Macdougal Street) and with new avant-garde landmarks: the Living Theater, the offices of the Village Voice, the Cedar Tavern, the Folklore Center, and coffeehouses like the Fat Black Pussycat, Cafe Bizarre, The Hip Bagel.
And nowhere does McDarrah's delight in the figure of the paradoxical Village emerge more strongly than in his description of Judson Church, a dignified religious institution in which all sorts of traditions are smashed: not only do the parishioners call Howard Moody, the minister, by his first name, but the church helps jailed poets, protects the rights of folksingers, houses a rehabilitation program for drug addicts, and sponsors Happenings, an avant-garde Poets Theater (the nascent Dance Theater is not mentioned), an art gallery, and a politically radical, town-meeting-style Hall of Issues.
Excerpted from Greenwich Village 1963 by Sally Banes. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Sally Banes, Professor of Theater History and Dance History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is the author of Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, and co-author of Fresh: Hip Hop Don't Stop.
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