Drake's in New York: Michael Hainey's Greenwich Village
The Corner Bistro sits at the end of West 4th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village. On cold nights, the red-orange of its neon sign casts a warm glow in the darkness, signaling a safe, cozy port. I discovered it when I moved to New York from the midwest in the late 80s to work in magazines. Back then, hard as it may seem to believe, no one really wanted to live in the Village. Its streets were still pretty ragged, bearing the scars of the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. Abandoned cars jacked up on blocks, their tires boosted. Boarded up storefronts here and there. The vibe was less Friends, and more Serpico. Most people I worked with took refuge in Brooklyn. A guy at the magazine where I caught on suggested I do the same.
I told him, “I didn’t move to New York to live in Brooklyn.”
He never really talked to me much again.
No loss. I had the Bistro. And the Village. And I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
What the Marais is to Paris, Greenwich Village has been to New York City for the past century or more: the artistic soul of the city. The Village is a microcosm of New York—and one of its gifts is that it is layered with reminders of the creative greats who have preceded you. Their ghosts and monuments are all around you and if you have even the vestige of a beating pulse, it’s impossible not to find inspiration as you wander the tree-lined, quiet streets that adhere not to the city’s rigid grid, but retain their ancient London roots; streets forged not from logic and reason, but by desire and whim.
I walk the Village and can’t help but think about Robert Zimmerman at the old hotel just around the corner from where I live, the room he crashed in while working his first gigs, a young singer still learning to be Bob Dylan; or John Lennon and the apartment he and Yoko lived in down by the Hudson River, after he fled London and the Beatles in 1970; I think of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, each inventing abstract expressionism in their studios within blocks of each other near West 10th Street and University in the 1950s, rewiring modern art. I think about Frank O’Hara and Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Woody Guthrie, Upton Sinclair, Janis Joplin and Martha Graham, James Baldwin and Eugene O’Neill.
The pleasure of the Village is that you can simply be there. It’s impossible not to simply give yourself to it and see where it takes you, what small beauty you discover around a bend. In the Village, the city is on a human scale. Three and four story brownstones dating to the early 19th century make up the bulk of the neighborhood, and parks are stitched in here and there.
All of which is what made me want to live here, and made me feel so happy when I found that first apartment there, a small studio on the ground floor of a hundred year old building—and the Corner Bistro, just out my door, became my second home.
When I was new to the city, I’d spend long Saturday afternoons there, alone but not alone—the way New York lets you be. I remember winter afternoons, how I’d bring a book and sit on a stool with a view out the window, watching the yellow cabs zig up Eighth Avenue, their black rear wheels fishtailing in the unspoiled snow. Beers were a dollar a draft back then. The burgers (still the best in the city) two-fifty.
And then there was the Saturday when the old man asked how I found the neighborhood. He had a gnarled face and gray hair that hadn’t seen a comb in ages and hands thick as oven mitts.
“I’m just an old sea dog,” he said.
He waved his hand toward the piers, now abandoned and crumbling into the Hudson River, mere blocks away. The river so close, you could smell the salt air. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep I could hear a lone tug boat, its horn low in the darkness.
“You ever seen On the Waterfront with Brando?” he asked.
“That was our life down here in the Village. The ships. The water.
Then he took a sip of his beer and said, “Well, if you want to be a writer, you’re in the best place: the heart of the heart of the city that’s at the heart of the world.”
All I can tell you now is this: You’d be losing out if you didn’t let yourself get lost in Greenwich Village for at least a day. Maybe even for the rest of your life.