Sunday, July 7, 2019

Then and Now: Bleecker at Thompson, Greenwich Village

Kenny's Castaways and Back Fence

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
Bleecker and Thompson Streets, 1983.
Some streets are the same, but they are different. The structures endure, but the people who use them also change. Thus, their needs change, and as their needs change, the businesses that service them change. Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is an excellent example. It has gone through many iterations, from home to immigrants just off the boat to Beatnick Paradise to rock n' roll haven to Yuppie theme park. After spotting the above picture from 1983, I decided to check in and see how this iconic Village crossroads is doing these days. So, I decided to do a comparison of the northwest corner of Bleecker Street at Thompson Street in Greenwich Village from 1983 to 2018.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
Bleecker and Thompson Streets, August 2018 (Google Street View).
A quick glance at the Bleecker/Thompson corner suggests that not much has changed. The same red building from the 1890s (yes, it was red back then, too) still houses some storefront businesses. In the 1983 photo, you can see The Back Fence on the far corner, Kenny’s Castaways next to it, and Surf Maid on the northeast corner. All of those businesses are gone. The street lamp on the corner is similar, though it now seems smaller. The city added a go/no go pedestrian sign on the northeast corner with a trashcan, but overall, it looks very similar. Or is it?

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
The northwest corner of Bleecker and Thompson (Google Street View).
Focusing on the businesses themselves gives a little deeper insight into what has changed over 35 years. In 1983, both of the businesses on that part of Bleecker Street were related to music. Kenny's Castaways closed in 2012, and its closing marked a sort of changing of the guard. Opened in 1976, Kenny's basically was a music club. There was a large wooden bar along the left as you walked in. You'd plunk down your $2, get a beer, and proceed to the small seating area in the back to enjoy the band playing in the corner. Kenny was Mike Kenny, an Irishman (he immigrated in the mid-1960s) closed his supper club uptown and opened Kenny's Castaways on Bleecker. His focus was on undiscovered talent, hence "Castaways." While I personally never saw anyone famous perform there, reportedly acts like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls took their turn in the back. Kenny's finally closed for a couple of reasons that really reflect what is going on in the neighborhood.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
The northwest corner of Bleecker and Thompson (Google Street View).
Kenny's closed because rents got too high. That is hardly unique to Bleecker Street, that phenomenon has been going on in New York City forever. However, Sergio Riva, who bought the lease, told The New York Times at the time:
They’re trying to turn Bleecker Street into a quiet block. The way we feel we’re going to be able to succeed is to be busier earlier in the day.
Now, who "they" are is a little unclear. However, a glance at this entire stretch of Bleecker Street east of 6th Avenue bears out that someone wants a less raucous atmosphere. My guess is all the gentry now inhabiting the apartments on the street. The loud music clubs are gone along with the loud Parisian-style cafes like like Caffe Borgia and the peculiar little video store on the corner. In their place are quiet little restaurants, banks, and even drugstores (gasp). The party atmosphere has disappeared completely. In its place is a staid, gentrified, quiet atmosphere. Oh, and Pig Bleecker, the barbecue chain joint on the corner, closed in February 2019. The culprit? The rising rents.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
A look at the southern side of the Bleecker/Thompson intersection shows what is really "happening" on Bleecker Street these days: a bank and a drugstore (Google Street View).
So, the funky loud places are gone. The lively crowds have been replaced by people occasionally disappearing into dark restaurants. In their place are bland, dependable, profitable businesses that could be literally anywhere. Personally, I think the banks' turn is coming next. As everything gradually goes paperless, who needs brick-and-mortar bank branches anymore? However, for now, they can absorb the rent better than a guitar supper club can. Now, I don't want to leave the impression that this is a rant about losing your childhood or anything like that because it isn't. Were Kenny's still there, I wouldn't be going there. Entertainment is too easy and too much cheaper to find elsewhere in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. The best bands in history are only a click away on Youtube. Hopefully, Mr. Kenny retired to the Hamptons or wherever he went and bought his own drum kit to keep downstairs to bang on occasionally. Maybe that reminded him of the good old days before he passed away in 2002. However, those days indeed are gone, and nobody knows when the current days are going to be gone, too.

Greenwich Street at Thompson Street, Greenwich Village
Thompson and Bleecker Streets by George Benjamin Luks, c. 1905, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in.; 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Palmer Museum of Art.
Incidentally, the name that Mr. Riva chose for his sedate restaurant that replaced Kenny's Castaways, Carroll Place, harkens back to the 1930s, when developer Thomas E. Davis tried to restructure and rename this section of Bleecker Street in order to make it more dignified and exclusive. Well, Mr. Davis, your dream finally has come true, 80 years later. In other words, Bleecker Street has become just like all the other homogenized blocks in the Big Apple. Isn't that special.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. It's only a matter of time before Bleecker Street enters a new phase, and hopefully one a little more lively than what it is going through now. Please visit some of our other pages in this continuing series!


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