“Many a visitor to New York would rather see a real-life beatnik than the Statue of Liberty.” That’s what an article written in 1959 once claimed. Indeed, back in the 1950s, beatniks weren’t just the talk of NYC, but much of the Western world. This new enclave of youth culture was at once thrilling, and more than a little frightening to some. On the East Coast, the scene all began and flourished in Greenwich Village, NYC.
Sixty years ago, the area was infinitely poorer, dirtier, and angrier. It was crammed with a society – mainly of youths – disenfranchised with American culture and looking to alter it. The venues and joints around Greenwich offered beatniks a place to do just this, mainly through art. Off-Off Broadway was Greenwich’s amalgamation of coffeehouses (such as Café Cino) and the Judson Poets’ Theater. Jazz and folk music filled joints such as The Village Gate and The Blue Note. And the streets were often the scenes of protests.
While many at that time casted a skeptical eye on the Beat Generation (and some still do), there is really no denying it worked a certain amount of magic for American society. Among figurehead beatniks operating in Greenwich in the 50s were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Names like these are still revered. Partly, this is down to the quality of their output (Kerouac’s On the Road features on school syllabuses and was recently turned into a motion picture; Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is a perennially popular read among those who like a challenge). But it’s also because works like Naked Lunch, and Ginsberg’s Howl (also the subject of a recent motion picture) were targeted by obscenity trials, and won. The liberalization of the US publishing industry had much to do with such output. And without a captive audience like Greenwich, perhaps this would never have happened. It would have at least been stalled until later years.
The Beat Goes On
You won’t see many beatniks in Greenwich Village any longer, or anywhere for that matter. However, the movement has left a definite mark. The area is still home to many artistic institutions; Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway continue to flourish. Village Vanguard and The Blue Note continue to resound with live jazz. Contemporary art can be found in collections such as the excellent Grey Art Gallery. Greenwich Village remains at the vanguard of progressive thinking too; it is home to the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the world, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop. The Center, meanwhile, is a place where those from the gay, lesbian, bi and transgender communities come to rendezvous and get involved in events. Greenwich Village may be cleaner now, and it may be somewhat more peaceful too. But it has never lost its unique ability to question, challenge, shock and inspire. Does the beatniks’ beat go on? It never really ceased.
Image courtesy of: Taís Melillo