Here's Yet More Proof the Village Is Never What It Was
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January 7, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 1
'A San Remo type': the vanishing Village
By Michael Harrington
In 1949 the world was much younger than it is now. I had just arrived in New York from St. Louis, and was staying with a friend in a City College dormitory. I wanted to get to the Village but not appear as a Midwestern square, so I asked someone at the 137th Street subway station how to get to the Village Barn, a tourist mecca on 8th Street. The straw fell gently out of my hair onto the platform.
I landed at Louis's over in Sheridan Square where the high-rise apartment and the supermarket are now. A little later, I accidentally wandered into a then Lesbian bar around the corner.
Even though I was a veteran of Little Bohemia down by the levee in St. Louis, that was a pretty exotic setting for a Missouri boy. So I was thinking how sophisticated some of us from the old home town had become -- T.S. Eliot, me -- and talking to a girl at the bar. Then her friend came along and was something less than hospitable. "You're a San Remo type, buddy. Why don't you go to the Remo?"
The next day I did, and stayed as a regular for better than a year before making the trek over to the White Horse for the rest of the '50s. The Remo was a sort of Village United Nations. It was straight and gay; black, white, and interracial; socialist, communist, trotskyist, liberal, and apolitical; literary, religious, pot smoking, pill popping, and even occasionally transvestite. There were Spanish Civil War veterans, Max Bodenheim, and, the night they changed from standard to daylight time in 1950, Dylan Thomas. You could meet a fair cross section of the recent graduates from Chicago, Antioch, Black Mountain (I"m not sure they had graduates), and other such underground academies of the day. The tourists came on weekends, but things had usually thinned out by 1 a.m. and my crowd rarely arrived before 12.
I remember one night in the winter of '50. Mary McCarthy had been doing a series on the Village for the New York Post and the piece on the Remo had just appeared. Apparently every regular decided that the place would be filled with gawkers so they made a dash for the bar pour epater les touristes. Not a single outsider came and the permanent cadre just milled around eyeing itself.
There were other literary celebrations of the place: Anatole Broyard wrote a very perceptive article on it for Partisan Review, it appeared as the Sporting Life in one of the Village novels, and later it became one of the important stops on the rounds that Bill Manville chronicled in "Saloon Society" for The Voice.
There were far fewer people in the Village then, with only one coffee shop on MacDougal. The place had the atmosphere of a campus, and after a year or so you had a nodding acquaintance with most of the full timers. And the Remo was our Deux Megots, our Cafe Flore, our La Coupole.
The other night, on my way to The Voice Christmas party, I passed the Remo. They've just turned it into a Howard Johnson's. It will blend in with the Coney Island decor of the street quite well.
Only I wish the world were 21 again. Not so much me. The world.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]