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Neighbors and Strangers
In the summer of 1898 Neith Boyce, a young journalist who worked for the New York Commercial Advertiser, lived in a tiny room in the Judson Hotel, an economical boardinghouse on the south side of Greenwich Village's Washington Square (map 2). Coming home from work, Boyce would take the Sixth Avenue elevated train uptown to the Bleecker Street station and walk three blocks to her hotel. Once there, she often stopped in at the room of one of two other Judson residents who, like herself, were young women who had begun careers in the overwhelmingly male profession of newspaper journalism. Boyce and her friends—Marie Manning, author of the New York Evening Journal's immensely popular Beatrice Fairfax advice column, and Olivia Dunbar of the New York World—would have a cigarette together (a symbol of their status as emancipated women) and laugh and talk about their day's work. Not infrequently that summer, these pleasant tête-à-têtes were cut short when Boyce excused herself to get ready to go out to dinner with her suitor, Hutchins Hapgood.
Hapgood, also a writer for the Commercial Advertiser, but older and better established in the profession than Boyce, had been courting her for almost six months. A self-described "intellectual and esthetic adventurer," Hapgood enjoyed introducing Boyce to his favorite haunts south and east of Washington Square: Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side, puppet shows in Little Italy, and tough Bowery dives such as ChuckConnor's. Tonight, however, the next day in this hypothetical account being a workday, they content themselves with dinner at the Black Cat, a nearby Bleecker Street bohemian hangout.
On leaving the restaurant after dinner, Boyce and Hapgood stroll through the immigrant and working-class parts of the Village near the restaurant. They are rewarded with sights and sounds that reflect the variety of ethnic communities to be found within a few minutes' walk from Washington Square. From their starting point at the Black Cat, they proceed west on Bleecker, a south Village street that even at this evening hour is crowded with vendors and pedestrians, most of them Italian immigrants. Three blocks west of the restaurant they cross MacDougal and begin to see increasing numbers of black Villagers, most of them African Americans but some West Indians too, who live on Minetta Street, Minetta Lane, or nearby. After another two blocks they reach Carmine Street, near the southern terminus of Sixth Avenue (it was extended farther south in the 1920s).
At this point they enter the edge of the west Village, an area occupied by various ethnic groups of European extraction but dominated by the Irish. Just ahead to their left is the east end of Leroy Street, whose Irish residents include representatives of every wave of immigration from the Emerald Isle to New York City over the past seventy years. Some are families whose older members came to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and whose ownership of handsome row houses on a one-block section of Leroy, known as St. Luke's Place, offer clear testimony to their inhabitants' rise to substantial middle-class status. West of St. Luke's Place, however, are several blocks of tenement houses whose occupants are mainly working-class Irish, many of whom have only recently arrived in the States from their native land. But Boyce and Hapgood do not have time this evening to explore more of the Irish west Village; instead they turn right on Cornelia and then east on West Fourth Street, a route that sets them on their way back to the Judson. Their round-trip walk of barely ten blocks has taken them through a succession of ethnic enclaves representative of the Village's diverse population.
Neith Boyce and Hutch Hapgood were eager observers of the richly varied ethnic life of Lower Manhattan's immigrant districts, which include the south and west parts of the Village. Although their relatively high educational and occupational status meant that they had very little in common with working-class Villagers, the two journalists (Hapgood in particular) were deeply interested in the lives of Italian, Irish, and black Villagers whom they passed daily on the streets. Most working-class Villagers, however, did not share this cosmopolitan outlook toward neighbors outside their own respective ethnic group. Such contact did take place—on blocks or in buildings that had residents from diverse ethnic backgrounds, in mixed-race saloons, in occasional attempts at political cooperation, and, most intimately, in mixed marriages—but it was the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, Italian, Irish, and black Villagers congregated in blocks and buildings where most residents were members of their particular ethnic group. Segregation along ethnic lines was also reflected in such important social relations as religious practice: Among Village Catholics, the west Village Irish attended Mass at St. Joseph's on Sixth Avenue, and the south Village Italians worshiped at Our Lady of Pompei on Bleecker. White Protestants belonged to white churches, and African American Protestants formed black Methodist and black Baptist congregations. And these lines of religious separation had parallels in every other sphere of daily life. Thus it was that at the turn of the twentieth century, members of the south and west Village's major ethnic groups were both neighbors and, for the most part, strangers.
The Heart of Little Africa
In 1898 the Village was home to one of the largest African American communities in the city. Blacks had lived in the Village ever since the Dutch colonial period, when former slaves first settled in the area. By the mid-1800s there were so many blacks in Greenwich Village that the section where they were concentrated was known as "Little Africa." Throughout much of the late nineteenth century the total number of blacks in the Village changed little, but this relative numerical stability masked significant demographic shifts taking place the area. From the late 1860s on, many black Villagers moved out of the neighborhood to new residential districts that were becoming available farther uptown, mainly between Fourteenth and Thirty-seventh streets. But the number of African American Villagers was sustained by the arrival of black migrants from the former Confederate states, especially Virginia, and did not immediately show a sharp decline?
Little Africa was only rarely mentioned in the popular literature of the late nineteenth century, and the few writers who did discuss it focused almost exclusively on the area's negative features, mainly squalor and criminality. The newspaperman and housing reformer Jacob Riis, who included a chapter titled "The Color Line in New York" in his best-selling book How the Other Half Lives (1890), regarded the Village's Little Africa as the social "bottom" of the narrow corridor on the West Side of Manhattan (the "top" was then at Thirty-second Street) where landlords were willing to rent to blacks. Riis described the dwellings that African Americans occupied on Thompson Street in the south Village as "vile rookeries" that inevitably debased their inhabitants.
Riis was equally critical of an institution found throughout Little Africa's slums: the "black-and-tan saloon," a type of drinking establishment with a mixed-race clientele of poor whites, blacks, and tans (mulattoes). "The moral turpitude of Thompson Street," Riis declared, "has been notorious for years, and the mingling of the three elements does not seem to have wrought any change for the better." Riis saw the black-and-tan saloon as a gathering place for the "utterly depraved of both sexes, white and black," which attracted, as he put it, "all the lawbreakers and all the human wrecks within reach" (fig. 1). Although much of the rest of Riis's chapter on black New Yorkers was devoted to praising the virtues of African Americans in other parts of the city, he left the impression that debauchery was the rule rather than the exception among black Villagers.
The young novelist and reporter Stephen Crane also visited Little Africa in the 1890s. Crane was on the lookout for colorful stories, and he found the neighborhood's unsavory reputation perfect for his purposes. He concentrated his attention on two narrow streets, Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, each of which was only a very short city block in length.
Crane exploited to the fullest the Minettas' notoriety as a dangerous and immoral locale. He wrote with relish about the black toughs—men and women known only by their nicknames, "No-Toe Charley," "Bloodthirsty," "Black-Cat," and "Apple Mag"—whose deeds had contributed to the Minettas' bad reputation. "Bloodthirsty" was a murderer, a large and "very hideous" man, "particularly eloquent when drunk," who wielded a wicked razor. "Black-Cat" was a "famous bandit." "Apple Mag" was a quarrelsome woman who reinforced her verbal assaults with "paving stones, carving knives and bricks." Other denizens of the Minettas such as Pop Babcock and Mammy Ross, old-timers whom Crane used as informants, lived a marginal existence. Mammy Ross passed her final days in a tiny kitchen at the end of a dark hallway in "an old and tottering frame house." Pop Babcock ran a squalid restaurant in a poorly lit room so small that its sparse furnishings—a cooking stove, a table, a bench, and two chairs—scarcely fit in the available space. On the occasion of Crane's visit there, three down-and-out loners were spending the night, one stretched out on the two chairs, a second asleep on the bench, and the third sprawled "on the floor behind the stove."
Murders, knifings, muggings, and other violent acts were commonplace occurrences in the Minettas until the mid-1890s. At that point a reform administration came to power, and the new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, replaced the police captain formerly in command of the local precinct with a hard-nosed law-and-order cop. A crackdown followed and the Minettas calmed down considerably, prompting one old-time Minetta Lane resident to tell Crane: "Why, disher' Lane ain't nohow like what it uster be—no indeed, it ain't. No, sir! My—my, dem times was diff'rent!" Though quieter in 1896 when Crane wrote his sketch, the Minettas were still an impoverished and unsavory place in which a modicum of order was maintained, according to Crane, only through police vigilance: "There is probably no street in New York where the police keep closer watch than they do in Minetta Lane" (fig. 2).
The Riis—Crane portrait of Little Africa was colorful but incomplete. Poverty and wretchedness were abundantly present within Little Africa's borders, yet an exclusive emphasis on those features of the neighborhood produced a seriously distorted picture of life there. Riis, in particular, by focusing on the debauchery he associated with black-and-tan saloons, reinforced a widespread prejudice of the time, which held that racial mixing always had a deleterious effect on both races and was a sign as well as a source of social decay. But there was more to Little Africa than saloons, or murder and mayhem in the Minettas. At the turn of the twentieth century, approximately twelve hundred blacks lived on west Village streets and alleys near and along lower Sixth Avenue, or on south Village streets in or adjacent to the Minettas. This large aggregation of black Villagers included many sober and industrious individuals and families, and many of these individuals were associated with well established, prosperous African American churches. Conspicuously absent from the Riis-Crane portrait of Little Africa, these individuals and institutions also displayed a stability and ambition that ran counter to the era's popular prejudices about life inside a mixed-race neighborhood.
Had Riis wanted to tell a story about family stability among Little Africa's inhabitants, he might have written about the Morgan J. Austins. This large family not only lived in Riis's black-and-tan district but was itself racially mixed. The family's patriarch, Morgan J. Austin, was an African American born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1851. The matriarch, Annie Austin, was a native of Pennsylvania, born in 1865, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her maiden name was Annie McCormick. Morgan and Annie were married in 1883, probably in New York, since all their children were born there. In 1900, after seventeen years of marriage, Annie had borne ten children, of whom eight, four boys and four girls, had survived and were living with their parents. The eldest was fifteen, the youngest barely eighteen months.
In 1900 the Austins were renting an apartment at 101 MacDougal Street, a five-story tenement on the west side of the street midway between Bleecker Street and Minetta Lane. The census taker listed thirteen house holds at the address: eleven of them had from three to five members each, one household had six members, and the Austins had ten. Other than the Austins, only one was a black family. The rest were headed by Italians, a majority of whom had immigrated to the United States in the last five years.
The Morgan J. Austins appear to have had a higher family income than that of most (if not all) of the Italian Americans in the building. Most of the male heads of the Italian households were day laborers, the least skilled type of work available and consequently the least well paid. A contemporary social worker's survey of working-class incomes in Greenwich Village, Louise Bolard More's Wage-Earners' Budgets (1907), listed eight examples of families headed by "casual laborers," only one of whom earned more than $700 in the survey year, while the average income of the remaining seven was barely $450. By contrast, Morgan J. Austin was employed as a waiter, a service job that generally paid much better than unskilled day labor. More's survey listed three black waiters (one of whom, like Austin, had a white wife) who earned $734, $774, and $1,134 respectively.
Although Morgan and Annie Austin had many mouths to feed, a large family was not necessarily a liability if some or all of the children were old enough to enter the work force. Such was the case with the Austins. In 1900 their oldest child, the fifteen-year-old boy, had already taken a job in a laundry and was thus making a small contribution to the family's income. Sometime during the next ten years the Austins moved to Minetta Lane. In 1910 their household comprised seventeen individuals from four generations: Annie's mother, Annie and Morgan, all eight of their surviving children, two sons-in-law, three grandchildren, and a lodger. Not only had the family stayed together, but its combined efforts could now mobilize a significant amount of earning power. In addition to Morgan Austin and the young male lodger, four of Morgan and Annie's children and both the sons-in-law were holding down jobs.
Looking more generally at other Minetta Lane residents listed in the census, even in 1900, ten years before the Austins show up at a Minetta Lane address, the census takers' inquiries produced quite a different picture from the one Crane had sketched only four years earlier. Gone in 1900—either dead or moved away—were Pop Babcock and Mammy Ross. Murderers and bandits, of course, would not have identified themselves as such and therefore are impossible to identify in the census, and Crane's homeless loners, if they were still part of the scene, also were not enumerated. But certain other features of life in the Minettas do come into bold relief in the census records: the racially mixed character of the local populace, the family ties that many residents maintained, and the common history that the area's black population often shared as recent migrants from southern cities to the North's greatest metropolis.
The attraction of cheap housing had brought a kaleidoscopic array of ethnic groups into close proximity. This fact is readily apparent from a quick look at who lived in the buildings on Minetta Lane's north side, eight residences and a large livery stable. Most occupants of the residences were either Italians or African Americans, but there were also whites from Germany, Russia, Belgium, and France, and blacks born in Africa, Bermuda, and Barbados. Racial mixing was the order of the day in most of the buildings and some of the households. Of eight houses or tenements, all but two—the tiny, two-story number 22, where a black couple lived, and number 16, home to a large Italian American family—had both black and white occupants. Number 24, the tallest building on the block, was a five-story tenement containing eleven households; nine were Italian and two were African American families. Number 2 Minetta Lane, though only three stories tall and on a smaller lot than number 24, was divided into twelve apartments, four occupied by Italian immigrants, six by African Americans, and two by mixed-race couples. Three other mixed-race couples lived on the block: two in number 18 and one in number 26.
Information collected by census takers indicated that the mixed-race and black families of Minetta Lane laid claim to a significant degree of stability in their marital relationships. Of seven Minetta Lane blacks who listed Richmond, Virginia, as their birthplace, all reported that they were married and living with their spouses in 1900. Except for Mary Clayton of 2 Minetta Lane, who had recently married for the second time, these individuals were partners in first marriages that had lasted for many years—no less than nine and as many as twenty-seven. Half of these couples had children living with them, a family configuration that was also found among most of their neighbors of all races in the Minettas. Even though family ties were no sure protection against poverty and despair, it seems fair to say that familial relationships were an important source of mutual aid on which many residents of Minetta Lane relied.
Another fact that census data documents about Minetta Lane blacks in 1900 is that a majority of them were native southerners who had joined in a post-Civil War exodus of African Americans from the former Confederacy. As the seven Richmond, Virginia-born individuals mentioned above illustrate, many of these migrants were from urban rather than farm backgrounds. (At least fifteen more "Richmond Negroes," the label a contemporary scholar gave these blacks once they reached New York City, are listed in the 1900 census at addresses within one block of Minetta Lane.) Using the birthdates of the New York-born children of Minetta Lane's seven "Richmond Negroes" to estimate when their parents left Virginia, it appears that most of them emigrated to the North in the late 1860s or early 1870s, just after emancipation made it possible for former slaves to travel freely. Later in the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, southern blacks by the tens of thousands followed in the footsteps of these early migrants, creating a mass movement called the Great Migration. Precisely what impact this shared experience had on relationships among Minetta Lane's Richmond-born blacks is not known. However, the large role that friendships and family connections played in the Great Migration is well documented. Undoubtedly, many of the twenty-two Richmond natives residing on or close to Minetta Lane in 1900 were aware of their neighbors' life histories and formed (or, more likely, preserved) bonds of friendship based on that shared past.
Quite a lot is known about Richmond-born blacks in New York City before World War I because they were the subjects of research projects conducted by three Columbia University graduate students working under the direction of Professor Franklin H. Giddings, a distinguished sociologist. None of Giddings's protégés studied Greenwich Village's Richmond-born blacks, but their findings regarding African Americans living farther north on Manhattan's West Side mesh so well with what is known about Minetta Lane's residents that the data may be taken as representative of them as well. For example, Giddings's students reported that the vast majority of Richmond-born blacks worked at unskilled or semiskilled jobs, largely as a consequence of limited educational opportunities and occupational discrimination that excluded blacks from most highly paid work. Six of the former Richmond residents living on Minetta Lane in 1900 clearly conformed to this occupational profile: Annetta Jackson and Lizzie Doran were cooks, William Jackson a domestic servant, Lewis Hamlin a common laborer, Mary Clayton a laundress, and John Young an employee in a laundry. The only possible exception was George Brown, who was the proprietor of a restaurant in the basement of the same run-down, two-story house where Pop Babcock once cooked oysters for derelicts and drifters. Given what is known about Babcock's operation, Brown's entrepreneurial efforts may have given him only marginally higher occupational status than his working-class neighbors.
With regard to the reasons why Richmond-born blacks had moved to New York City, the young Columbia sociologists found that the most frequently cited motivation was hope of economic betterment: the cost of living was higher in New York City, but wages were higher as well. The next most frequently mentioned reason for migrating was the wish to join relatives who had already settled in the city. (A number of informants said that family connections had become even more important to them in New York than they had been in Virginia.) A smaller, though significant, number of Richmond-born blacks indicated that they had been drawn to New York by the city's reputation as a glamorous and exciting place. Finally, several informants said they had left Virginia to escape constant reminders of the state's slave past and that, despite the many racial barriers they encountered in the North, they felt they had more personal freedom in New York than in the South.
Excerpted from Inside Greenwich Village by Gerald W. McFarland. Copyright © 2001 by University of Massachusetts Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction : the latter days of the sixth village||1|
|Ch. 1||Neighbors and strangers||8|
|Ch. 2||For their mutual benefit||49|
|Ch. 3||The patrician response||77|
|Ch. 5||Value conflicts||151|
|Ch. 6||Becoming bohemia||189|