“The poet reads his crooked rhyme/Holy holy is his sacrament/Thirty dollars pays your rent/On Bleecker Street.”
So crooned Simon & Garfunkel in their 1964 song “Bleecker Street,” which recalls a time before Manhattan rents skyrocketed and most poets fled the island for cheaper housing. In 1964, Greenwich Village was nearing the end of its century-long run as a bohemian district, where artists lived and collaborated, creating countercultural movements so powerful that some would eventually become mainstream. In 2016, monthly rents for apartments on Bleecker Street run at least $2,000, a tenfold increase even after accounting for inflation—though, in all fairness, even in 1964 a Greenwich Village resident paying only $30 probably had multiple roommates and a bathtub in the kitchen, as the average Manhattan rent was $200. Though the Village still boasts artistic venues and prides itself on accepting people from all walks of life, its wealthy residents now share their streets with Marc Jacobs and Starbucks rather than cheap, smoke-filled cafés.
Penned in the 1950s, Wonderful Town tells the story of Ruth and Eileen, two 20-something sisters who move to Greenwich Village from their childhood home in Ohio. Ruth dreams of becoming a famous writer while Eileen auditions in hopes of becoming an actor. The musical showcases the heady world of the Village, which was for decades the center of progressive thought and creativity, where, in the words of director Mary Zimmerman, “creative souls of all kinds gathered with like-minded others.” Like many of their freedom-seeking peers, aspiring artists like Eileen, Ruth and their onstage neighbors journey there from throughout the country and world, with high hopes of fortune, fame or simply a life creatively lived.
The neighborhood now known as Greenwich Village spent its pre-urban years as marshland before it was cleared and turned into pasture by Dutch settlers in the 1630s. As its name suggests, it first developed as a village separate from New York City, which flourished on the lower tip of Manhattan. By 1797, the Village was home to Newgate Prison, New York’s first penitentiary, and around this time some of the present-day Village began to be used as a potter’s field—the remains of some 20,000 of New York’s poorest 19th century citizens still lie under Washington Square. During yellow fever epidemics, the Village also served as a place where wealthier New Yorkers found refuge from the disease. As the city spread north, the Village slowly grew less remote and eventually was absorbed by the urban sprawl.
In 1857, architect Robert Morris Hunt designed the Tenth Street Studio Building, which featured artist studios arranged around a central domed gallery. It not only housed the first architecture school in the United States, but also quickly attracted artists from across the nation and world: Winslow Homer worked there, as did many of the painters of the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century art movement whose practitioners painted landscapes that reflected American ideals and ideas such as exploration and settlement. Greenwich Village soon gained a reputation as an artistic hub, and an 1858 article in The New York Times noted the rise of a particular type of New Yorker, the so-called bohemian. “Bohemian is now heard almost as frequently as the once unknown term of loafer. But a Bohemian is not quite a loafer, though he is not far removed from one. The Bohemian is either an artist or an author, whose special aversion is work, and whose ambition is to excel in some particular walk for which Nature never designed him.” The writer’s negative opinion of artists aside, his comments demonstrate that New York, much like Paris, had become a haven for creative people—and by the mid-19th century, Greenwich Village housed many of them.
The 1880s saw the opening of the Hotel Albert, originally called the Hotel St. Stephen, where many artists lived as long-term residents, using its restaurant as a meeting place. Famous artists who spent time there include Robert Louis Stephenson, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and, later, Anaïs Nin, Robert Lowell, Horton Foote, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. In the early 20th century, the Village became associated with experimental theater, an important development because until that point Americans had mostly relied on Europe for theatrical innovations. Groups such as the Provincetown Players (members included Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill) and the Living Theatre resided there, mingling with the musicians and visual artists and enriching one another’s work.
Greenwich Village proved its progressive status in a different way in 1938 when it became home to the nation’s first desegregated nightclub. Café Society featured African American performers like Count Basie, John Coltrane, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. After World War II, the Village became a hub for the Beat Generation, influencing the work of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And in 1969 it was home to the Stonewall Riots, a series of standoffs between police and patrons of the Stonewall Inn, recently named a national monument, which is widely considered the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Throughout this period, rents remained low, permitting the not-yet-successful to live among and hobnob with better-established artists. In Wonderful Town, starry-eyed sisters Ruth and Eileen use a Greenwich Village apartment as their unglamorous launching pad as they seek professional success. The musical is based on the true story of Ruth and Eileen McKenney, who were immortalized by Ruth in My Sister Eileen, a series of stories she wrote for The New Yorker, which were then later adapted into a play and this musical. For these two young women, and many like them, the Village was not only a physical place, but an idea and an ideal: to live in the Village was to be at the vanguard of an ever-changing world, and to have a fighting chance to make one’s mark on it.