Edwin Fancher: Change and Continuity in Greenwich Village

Regulars at the San Remo Café. Writer Jack Kerouac sits on the far right.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) works to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. In the mid-1990s GVSHP started an active series of oral history interviews —and, not surprisingly, in 2000 it sat down with Edwin Fancher, co-founder of the Village Voice, to document his role in the founding of the iconic publication. As GVSHP’s Senior Director of Operations I was excited to recently learn of a much earlier interview, when Fancher spoke to four student journalists about the state of the Village for the WNYC show Campus Press Conference on October 4, 1959. At that point the Voice was not even four years young, and the neighborhood was going through some sea changes.

The Campus Press Conference conversation includes diverse issues affecting Greenwich Village at the time, such as racketeering, the relationship between local Italian immigrants and bohemian newcomers, the community’s reaction to interracial and homosexual couples, expansion of New York University, gentrification, and Greenwich Village as an intellectual center. Fifty-five years later, some of the concerns in the neighborhood remain strikingly similar, while some have evolved, and yet others are a distant memory. Although the interview is dated in terms of its language and cultural understanding, particularly as it relates to race and sexuality, it also offers great insight into the time.

Two topics in the conversation stand out. The first is change in Greenwich Village: when one of the reporters asks Fancher if the area has been experiencing change and whether it is for the better or worse, Fancher wisely explains that Greenwich Village has historically been a neighborhood of great change. But even in 1955 this was nothing new.  When Fancher notes, for example, an increase in the development of luxury housing and the dwindling of the Italian community, I am reminded of a New York Times article from 1902 noting how 

Greenwich Village, that quaint old district of New York. . .  though its history is rich, has within recent years fallen low in the social scale. Italians are now in great part colonizing it —Italians of the laborer order. Even the architectural charm of this district, extending for some blocks below Fourteenth Street, and between Sixth Avenue and the North River, is rapidly going, tenements now replacing the curious old dwelling houses for a half century its feature.

When GVSHP talks to current residents concerned about new development or the loss of businesses, we often explain that Villagers have always worried about change. Indeed, although Greenwich Village is a neighborhood that continually experiences change, many of us today worry about the loss of tenement housing and its impact on the character of the neighborhood.

The second topic that stands out is the role of the Village as a cultural center. One reporter asks Fancher about the Village’s reputation as an intellectual center, and Fancher prophetically responds that in his opinion, the cultural scene of the Village of the 1940s and 50s will come to be known as “a golden era,” even comparing the bohemian character of the 1940s and 50s with that of the 1910s and 20s. It is natural for Fancher to more easily identify with Allen Ginsberg than say, Edna St. Vincent Millay: for example, Fancher’s oral history with GVSHP from 2000 notes how he and his Village Voice partner Dan Wolf “were part of what could probably be called a kind of a bohemian culture, focused around the San Remo and Louie’s Bar. We were friends with Jimmy [James] Baldwin and Kerouac and Ginsberg—a whole lot of literary people.” But in many ways, Fancher was right. Young people today often refer to the “iconic Greenwich Village” as that of the mid-century, forgetting those who paved the way two generations earlier.

While other issues mentioned in the interview (such as racketeering) are a distant memory for the Village, its citizens still worry very much about change and the state of the neighborhood as a place for artists. As a historic preservationist, I worry about insensitive changes to the neighborhood’s historic architecture. As a historian, I think deeply about how different groups have influenced the culture of the neighborhood. But like Fancher, I can see the very positive points in the neighborhood’s current incarnation: enjoying an afternoon spent in the Jefferson Market Garden or an evening at the Cherry Lane Theatre; listening to music at Smalls or having a coffee at Café Reggio; leafing through books at the Strand or shopping for toiletries at C.O. Bigelow. Perhaps someday, this time might be described as a “Golden Age” of the Village as well.