Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Once around Greenwich Village

A young couple from Mississippi saw either the web site or the YouTubes, and they emailed, looking for a tour while visiting NYC. We scheduled a Greenwich Village Comprehensive tour ( for 2 PM Monday, at Union Square. They also wanted to find out what SoHo was all about, and it's the off season. I usually bill $85 an hour, but it's the off season and I'm glad to get the work. So I wrote up a 90-minute comprehensive Village tour that would dovetail into a SoHo Tour by going east on Bleecker, just like our old Double-Decker route, then south on West Broadway and into the gallery district. Just $100 total for over two hours. We met, they sat on the heated seats, I put the carriage blanket over them, and we were off.

BTW, this is how we talk now, this "about" stuff. Ten years ago I would have written, "They wanted to find out about SoHo" but now it's to find out "what SoHo is about." Every subject spoken of by those under 40 is about something, and they set out to state what it's about. In the '50s there was only one "about" and that was The Hokey Pokey. That's what it's all about!

We put our whole selves into it, too.

So. Village tour.
We went south on Broadway, stopping in front ot Blatt Billiards,where a gorgeous handbuilt inlaid pool table stands in the window. "Governor Schwarzeneggar shops here." Yeah, he owns one of those Blatt tables, the best in the country. After a peek into Grace Episcopal Church (James Renwick, arch.) we hung a right and into blocks of historic houses.

They saw the house that was accidentally blown up in 1970 by student activists who were building a bomb in the basement while the parents were out. And the toy bear who stands in the window there, dressed this week in a bright green outfit for St. Patrick's Day. That bear has an outfit for every occasion! Jets, Mets, Nets and Yankee uniforms for whoever's in the playoffs, a fireman's outfit, and a tux around New Year's Eve. The current owners of the house have put a lot of thought into that bear.

Down near the end of the next block, a couple of historical notes: the second cemetery of the very first group of Jews in the western hemisphere. They came in 1653, literally victims of the Spanish Inquisition. A little further down the block was the site of the old Grapevine Tavern, through which people "heard it," if you get me.

St. Vincent's Wall Of Remembrance is still gone, that ghastly wall of "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON WHO WORKS IN THE TWIN TOWERS" posters of the dead-yet-hoped-only-missing, that cluttered kiosks and bulletin boards all over downtown in the days following The Attacks. Saint Vincent's had them on a sheltered south-facing porch on West 11th, but they are gone now, supposedly for cleaning and refurbishment. They've been gone for almost a year; I should check into that with Mark Levy, who started a "friends of" group.

On to Greenwich Avenue (not Street) to see the tiles that kids all over North America sent in after The Attacks, and across Perry Street. It was named for Matthew Perry, but not that Matthew Perry. Google him with"Japan" in the search box and learn some American history.

And so on. Bleecker Street's generations of live folk music at The Bitter End, The Peculier Pub's proud listing of 500 beers, single-spaced on its 3-column beerlist. The Blue Note, the IFC Cinema, the Directors' Walk of Fame, the building used in the TV series Friends (that Matthew Perry) Saint Luke's-In-The-Fields, and the usual smattering of 150-year-old houses.

Then down into SoHo.

What makes SoHo unique is its architecture. SoHo is made largely of lofts. The area had been residential until the revolutionary store of A.T. Stewart, which opened on Broadway in 1842. Then what is not SoHo became known as the "cast-iron district." Stewart's idea was to use an entire building, essentially a house, and fill it with goods of different kinds in different rooms. So, cutlery and dishes on the left, linens on the right, men's clothing down the hall, women's clothing upstairs front, etc. It seems to the modern mind as if things were always done this way, but it was a New Yorker who made up the concept. He called it the "department" store.

And it was the only one in the world. Stewart made a fortune!

That was 1842. By 1850 there were dozens, up and down Broadway, north of the financial district. They absolutely revolutionized the concept of shopping, revolutionized architecture and revolutionized women's civil rights. How?
Aha, you'll have to take the tour to find out all that. But here's a teaser: at the end of this one-minute YouTube is A.T. Stewart's house.

It's a full three stories and L-shaped, at the interior corner of a Village sidestreet. Out front a circular staircase and working gas lamp. And a plaque to let the world know that Stewart invented the department store.

My guests had a great time in the Village and SoHo. They got off on Grand Street at Ferrara's, one of my favorite eating establishments. Everything is dessert.

Stan O'Connor
licensed sightseeing guide

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