Centuries ago, the term 'New-York City' referred to a tiny but bustling commercial center on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Greenwich Village, a long walk away from what was then 'the city,' was an actual village; that is, people lived there because they didn't
want to live in the city. Seems kinda strange now, doesn't it?
By the time Henry James wrote 'Washington Square', the Village was still an elegant residential town, although the city was starting to creep towards it. Bleecker Street was then known as the 'French Quarter', which explains the origin of all the cafes that can still be found there.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the commercial and business interests in the old New-York City began to rapidly expand. But this was the age of skyscrapers, and it was discovered that the ground under the humble Greenwich Village was too soft to build upon. The exploding city had to go all the way to the area now known as Midtown Manhattan, where the bedrock was stronger, to build its skyscrapers. Thus the Village never got swallowed up and remained, at least to some extent, a 'village.' And New York City got to keep a pleasant and humane residential town right in its center, dividing the 'old city' of Wall Street, Battery Park and the Brooklyn Bridge from the 'new city' of Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
The Village was always a center for Bohemian culture. The film 'Reds' is a good portrait of the experimental literary and political community that gathered there in the early decades of the 20th Century.
In mid-century, the writers and assorted odd characters of the Beat Generation
naturally made the Village their home base. Allen Ginsberg
had an apartment in the East Village that became a major gathering spot. The San Remo and the Cedar Tavern were popular drinking spots. The Village Voice, a weekly tabloid partly founded by Norman Mailer, was an important voice for the radical and artistic factions in the 50's and 60's.
The Village was overrun by hippies and folksingers in the 60's. Bob Dylan
lived on MacDougal Street for a while in the late sixties, until he was chased out by obnoxious ex-fans who didn't like the album 'Nashville Skyline'.
Where Exactly is the Village?
Forget proper definitions: for all practical purposes the Village is the horizontal strip of Manhattan Island between Houston Street and 14th Street. South of Houston Street is Soho (the name means South of Houston) and North of 14th is the beginning of midtown.
The West Village
On the west of the strip is (naturally) the West Village, which has the nicest-kept apartments. There's a large gay population around Christopher Street. The Stonewall, where the first gay-rights riot took place in 1969, used to be here.
Washington Square Area
In the center of the Village is New York University and Washington Square Park (a great place for hanging out, though on nice summer days it's more like a noisy party than a park). Around Bleecker Street, a block south of Washington Square, you can find a lot of coffeehouses, live music clubs, bootleg record shops and antique (yeah right!) jewelry shops.
The East Village
On the east is the East Village (it's almost too
logical), where Cooper Union and Tompkins Square can be found. St. Mark's Place is freakier and less commercial than Bleecker Street. William Kotzwinkle's 'The Fan Man' is a good comic novel about the 60's/70's East Village scene. On 2nd Ave and 6th Street there are about forty excellent Indian restaurants (yum!) all on the same great, great block.