A Historical Profile of MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street and the surrounding area have played a role in the lengthy history of the village, and New York City in general.  What specifically drew me to the MacDougal Street area was its position in the beat movement during the fifties.  I am interested in further exploring how this geographical location allowed for such a movement to evolve.  I am really interested as to why MacDougal Street was an area in which so many types of art flourished, and did so for decades.  I would like to answer questions such as how did MacDougal Street become such a significant place in allowing beats to create poetry, write, and explore song and dance?  Has it always served as a place for non-conformity, liberalness, and freedom?  If so, are these aspects still present in the MacDougal Street neighborhood today?  Below are a few historical elements that I plan to focus on, in addition to others.

It seems as though the MacDougal Street area has always served as an atmosphere for artistic expression.  One of the earlier defining examples of this artistic expression were the Provincetown Players.  These players completed six seasons at their MacDougal Street location with the premiere of their first season in 1916.  They were known for their ensemble approach, privileging the interpretative views of writers and directors, innovative set design, and serious social and political content (McFarland, 204).  MacDougal Street was home to one of the early experimental theaters that “helped establish American drama as a serious art form” (McFarland, 204).  However, theater was not the only factor contributing to the history of MacDougal’s art scene.

MacDougal Street in the 1950s really served as a place for beats to take refuge and express themselves through forms of poetry, writing, literature, and photography.  Several places, including some that still exist today, functioned as hangouts for pioneers of the Beat Movement such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.  Some of the popular spots that these beats frequented were Minetta Tavern, Café San Remo, Café Reggio, Kettle of Fish, and the Gas Light Café.  Members of the beat generation and movement felt free, to write, read poetry, listen to music, and converse at these places.  However, by the 1960s, tenants in the neighborhood began to become fed up with the results of the liberalness and freedom that characterized this movement, and police took action.

In a 1960 New York Times article entitled “Second Beat Café Closed by Firemen” it is stated that two cafes, Bizarre and Gaslight, popular among the beat crowd, have been closed with little explanation besides unsafe in the event of fire.  The article also mentions that many sympathizers gathered on the sidewalks in reaction to these seemingly illegitimate closings (Second ‘Beat” Café Closed by Firemen, p. 79).

MacDougal street’s freedom and nonconformity in addition to its welcoming of the arts continued into the ater half of the twentieth century.  In Inside Greenwich Village, Gerald McFarland describes the village by decade, stating that it was the beat village in the 1950s, the countercultural village in the 1960s, and the gay and lesbian village in the 70s and 80s (McFarland, p.210).  The MacDougal Street area’s embodiment of non-conformity is consistently seen in historical newspaper articles.  One article from the New York Times written in 1966 states, “The city’s efforts to curb the crowds, cut the noise, and end the honky-tonk atmosphere is disappointing some Greenwich Village leaders” (Manning, p.16).  One of the major aspects of the street that seemed to bother residents was that is served as a place for the distribution and use of narcotics.  However, this same 1966 article reports that the police action in dealing with this situation had resulted in improvement for the time being (Manning, p.16-17).

In order to gain further insight into MacDougal Street and its role before, during, and after the beat movement I have begun to formulate a research plan with many different aspects.  One way I plan to further examine MacDougal Street’s impact on the art, social, and political scenes of New York City during the twentieth century is to look at primary sources such as photography, poetry, literature, and music that came out of the cultural movements of MacDougal street.  More specifically, I would like to look at the poetry and photography of Allen Ginsberg, Millay’s poem entitled “MacDougal Street,” and the writing of Jack Kerouac just to name a few examples.

Additionally, I would like to listen to the music that was popular on MacDougal Street throughout the twentieth century, focusing on jazz and blues.  I would like to look at the art itself as a source, the art that both emanated from but also discusses MacDougal Street.  I also plan to look at historical New York newspaper articles that contain information about the neighborhood similar to the ones I have referenced above.  Furthermore, I would like to use informational books that talk about the area and what emerged from it such as McFarland’s Inside Greenwich Village.  Additionally, I think watching documentaries could prove very helpful.  There are two documentaries that examine the beat movement and interview some of the pioneers of the movement.  I think interviews with men like Ginsberg and Burroughs could be very enlightening in terms of the movement and MacDougal Street.  There is also a documentary about New York in the fifties and the emergence of Bohemia in the village which could be useful.  Lastly I plan on walking the street and surrounding area myself to really get a feel for the environment and help improve my understanding of the neighborhood today and what it seems to exude after having endured everything of the twentieth century; to see if it still embodies some of the values it did decades ago.

McFarland, Gerald. Inside Greenwich Village. University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. Print.

“Producing Playwrights.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922): 1. Nov 04 1917. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York     Tribune (1841-1922). Web. 3 Oct. 2012 .

“Second ‘Beat’ Cafe Closed by Firemen.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 79. Jun 12 1960. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). Web. 3 Oct. 2012 .

The New York Times (by, Jack Manning. “City Cleanup of MacDougal St. is Called a Failure.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 16. May 30 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008); ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008) with Index (1851-1993). Web. 3 Oct. 2012 .

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