Above: Marcel Duchamp in Washington Square
On our recent research trip to New York, we made our home in the Washington Square Hotel, a 110-year-old establishment which has implacably survived changes to the surrounding neighbourhood. It provided an admirable bolthole, conveniently-located in the heart of Greenwich Village yet blessedly tranquil after a hard day’s walking and note-taking. We are most grateful to them for the assistance they provided our fledgling enterprise.
The hotel was formerly known as the Earle, and Harts Guide To New York City (Hart, 1964) describes how under its windows, students wander around in twos and threes; bearded beats and blue-jeaned artists stroll in Left Bank leisure. Such were its nonconformist credentials that Bob Dylan holed up there in 1964, and Bo Diddley and the Ramones are among the many notable personalities who have found shelter under its roof. The hotel sits on Waverly Place, at the north west corner of Washington Square Park, once a focal point of bohemianism which has, like much of the city, lost its more ragged edges. Certainly it is a quite different place to the one Kate Simon depicts in her wonderful book, New York Places & Pleasures (Harper & Row, 1971 edition): ”On fine Sundays as soon as the weather turns comfortable, the intellectual youth of the city - the teenagers from progressive schools, from the arts high schools, the escapees from too-conformist homes - pour into Washington Square Park.”
She goes on to describe the pre-Raphaelite who lets her lank hair hang poetically loose around her thin shoulders, who wears a wide floating skirt and the facial expression of a Blessed Damozel: the absinthe drinker whose desperate aim is to make her seventeen years look like the abyss of depravity. No matter how they see themselves - the late romantics, the dissolutes - they remain to the viewer beguiling bunches of fresh flowers, heavily tendriled with hair and beads.
Still, students from nearby NYU continue to wander through the Square, chess players still congregate even in the depths of winter, and there are enough apparently aimless young men to give the impression that all one’s pharmaceutical needs might be catered for. It has, as Harts Guide says, an undeniable Village flavour.
Above: Washington Square in the 1960s, image from www.ajaxallpurpose.blogspot.com