Manhattan has always been popular with single adults, but not with families. The city began as a drained swamp at the bottom tip of the island-it was smelly and crowded-so who would want to live here if they could afford better? Once the better homes were built north of Washington Square, those that lived below deserted the place. Thomas Wolfe described his neighbors as “old dependent on pensions, waiting to die.” With a mostly adult population, it would have vices. But it would also be more accepting of eccentric people.
John Strausbaugh writes The Village as a narrative, and uses the well-known residents to illustrate the story. Starting with Thomas Paine, then Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe, he writes how the downtown area attracted poets, artists, and a host of other unusual characters. It seems that these people were attracted to the area by the low rents, but also by it acceptance. There wasn’t as much snobbery south of Washington Square. The well-heeled lived up by Gramercy Park, and as the wealthiest lived along Central Park (Vanderbilt and Frick had mansions on 5th avenue.) South of Washington Square Park, on what is now Minetta, MacDougal, and Gay streets, was “Little Africa,” home of New York City’s free slaves. Black Americans were still living on MacDougal by the 1950’s. They lived side by side with Irish, Italians, Jews, and others.
One character discussed at length, is a man few of us know, by the name of Ralph Werther. This man was an early example of “transgender,” but his story appeared only in medical journals. He spoke to doctors in detail about his feelings of being in the wrong body, and his excursions in woman’s clothes. The story isn’t a happy one; he describes beatings by classmates, prostituting himself in rough areas, gang-rape by groups of men, etc. Strausbaugh uses Werther’s story to show how vices were accepted in the area. There were transvestite brothels in the Village-the Golden Rule was one-that were tolerated by the law, probably because nobody wanted them further uptown. Those of you that read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist will probably be familiar with these. But keep in mind, this was the only part of the city that tolerated interracial marriages.
I have only two faults with the book. The first is the length-over 540 pages-and that’s too long. I think The Village would’ve done better if broken down into three books, released consecutively. My second fault with the book is that there aren’t enough photos. I there are no illustrations of Little Africa, nor are there any of Washington Square Park when it was a parade ground (and before that it was a potter’s field.) There are photos of these in existence, and their presence would’ve been a great help.
All in all, I would definitely recommend The Village. It taught me some things I’d never known about the neighborhood.