Travel

Vibrant Village

Mamoun’s Falafel is dark and drafty. It’s also delicious.
Mamoun’s Falafel is dark and drafty. It’s also delicious. NYC & Company

“Why are all these (expletive) people on my street?” demanded the old man, lifting his craggy voice above the Manhattan din.

With a cane in each hand, he hauled himself across Bleeker Street. My son and I made way, as did young couples in pricey hats, scarves and skinny jeans.

In his prime, the old man might have cavorted with a young Bob Dylan, who famously launched his career – and more – in Greenwich Village. Now this local was witness to a very different movement: a flood of moneyed young professionals and tourists threatening to transform the Village from a nest of artsy bohemianism to a consumerist utopia.

Case in point: Several years back, the Vanishing New York blog reported that a veteran Village restaurant was closing after its rent suddenly jumped from $8,000 per month to $18,000. Since then, the discussion in New York City over gentrification has only intensified.

So has the Village morphed into Disneyland? The fact that David Bowie spent much of his final years here suggests the enclave is more than just a “Village of Yesteryear” tourist trap. And yet, consternation over rising rents and displacement continues. To get the scoop, I journeyed there in February with a my teenage son on a budget of, including lodging, $350 per day – with no Broadway spectacles or regal carriage rides on the agenda.

‘Freewheelin’

To get a real feel for America’s boho bastion, we skipped fancy accommodations. A hotel just can’t put you close enough to the ground. Instead, we stayed slightly below-ground level in a one-room apartment (via homeaway.com) that had a bathroom the size of an iPhone, a kitchenette barely big enough for a frying pan and unsociable neighbors squeezing through tight hallways. So far, so good.

Emerging on our first morning, we encountered a guided tour. The group leader identified Jones Street – our temporary home – as the location of the photo on the cover of the “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album. He added that Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Ramones had all shot album covers and/or videos nearby.

A lithe, well-dressed woman asked, in a thick European accent, “Dylan and ze Ramones make album together?”

The guide smiled slyly. “Yes,” he answered. “Let’s go with that.”

But the Village’s musical legacy isn’t all about looking back. Cafe Wha? may have made its bones decades ago featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Joan Rivers and the Velvet Underground, but it’s still rocking today thanks in large part to a house band famed for rollicking versions of contemporary hits mixed with rambunctious crowd interplay.

Audiences at Smalls Jazz Club are more attentive to detail. The basement lounge is one of New York City’s (and thus America’s) prime spots to catch up-and-coming jazz cats. The good news for us out-of-towners is that Smalls’ website lovingly archives many of the club’s performances.

The Bitter End, founded in 1961, still packs a knockabout charm. Oh sure, the bar crows about the superstars who’ve graced its stage: Springsteen, Joplin, Dylan. But the place is still down-to-earth enough that I was able to negotiate an early-bird rate on the cover charge. Following our negotiation, the avuncular doorman loudly deemed me “the lawyer from Seattle.” I didn’t know which to take more personally, the “lawyer” or the “Seattle” part (neither applies to me) – but the revered pub’s bonhomie totally won me over.

Onstage, a five-piece ensemble applied itself ably to a set of what’s known today as “yacht rock” – ’70s-style FM pop with bouncy rhythms and a touch of personal revelation. The tunes seemed to particularly please a frizzle-haired woman at the bar who exuberantly hooted and hollered. She turned out to be Bette Sussman, noted side woman to Whitney Houston and Bette Midler, and she soon took the stage to deliver three knock-out numbers before sauntering back to the bar, perhaps to rest up for the prime-time hours yet to come.

Most heartening, new blood is on the way. Back at our temporary flat, a young band was moving in, hauling guitars, amps and just a wee bit of clothes and groceries into one of the snug second-floor units. Every time the door slammed and boots stomped up the stairs at 3 a.m., I envisioned the thin, hopeful band members returning from another round of schmoozing, jamming and upholding a great Village tradition.

Unoppressive

Of course, neither folkie nor yuppie can live on music alone. Fortunately, the Village offers plenty to fill the stomach and expand the mind.

Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books harks back loudly and proudly to the enclave’s days of cheap living and activist thinking. At first glance, its packed quarters resemble an episode of “Hoarders,” but there’s logic in the assemblage of music bios (including a deluge of Dylan), travel tomes, lessons in economics and kids’ books.

Likewise, Bleeker Street Records, with its throwback new-wave vibe, and the heavy metal-slanted Generations revel in hard-to-find vinyl, edgy T-shirts and knowledgeable, talkative clerks. Around the corner, the clammy but bustling IFC Center treats film buffs to arthouse fare, ranging from an Australian horror flick about rabid dogs to a Japanese anime epic concerning shape-shifting raccoons who “band together to fight back when capitalist developers threaten to build over their home.”

When in need of physical sustenance, the Grey Dog Cafe supplies fast, hearty fare like pancakes, omelettes and abundant dark coffee in a rustic, get-your-own-silverware setting. It also attracts young locals, which means chic moms with toddlers as well as confident career climbers.

Mamoun’s Falafel is dark and drafty and usually stacked with characters, many of whom seem to have blown in from a long squat at nearby Washington Square Park. It’s also delicious, which is why it’s thrived here since 1971 – despite the dangers newcomers face when naively going too heavy on the volcanic hot sauce.

The Saigon Shack serves up steaming bowls of beef pho and a nearing-legendary side of sweet potato fries with a sesame-mayo sauce. But don’t linger. There’s usually a wait, and the smiling staff is eager to turn the tables.

The Village Chess Shop remains a haven for players and aficionados decades after its founding. We marveled both at the specialty boards – including an aliens vs. humans set that would fascinate Fox Mulder – and the veterans mulling their moves in a crowded back room.

Similar in concept but far more boisterous is The Uncommons, a cafe devoted to the preservation and thrills of board games. From “Sorry!” to “Settlers of Catan,” they’re all here, stacked from floor to ceiling for your use. With the coffee, beer and pizza providing ample fuel for families and 20-somethings, The Uncommons will bring you back to those joyous pre-laptop days when “Clue” was the hottest thing going.

Billy Warden is a business consultant and writer based in the Triangle.

If you’re going

Details on visiting New York City: www.nycgo.com.

  Comments