Henry James. Edgar Allan Poe. Norman Rockwell. Eugene O'Neill. Jackson Pollack. Bob Dylan. More notable writers, artists, and musicians have maintained homes and apartments in the West Village than perhaps any other part of the city. Not bad for an area that was initially notable as a place to get away from yellow fever.
People looking to escape the epidemics of the more crowded downtown area initially settled the West Village (which is usually shortened to "the Village") in the late 18th Century. It is somewhat ironic that Washington Square Park, the area's focal point, was once reserved for those people who didn't make it.
Of course, the park has changed quite a bit since then. After its initial morbid use, Washington Square was converted into a parade ground. By the time Henry James penned his own Washington Square, the park had already become the outdoor focus of the neighborhood. It remains so to this day.
Moderately busy during weekdays, the park becomes a hive of activity on weekends. Students like to lounge in the grass, neo-folkies and jugglers spread themselves around, and stand-up comics rehearse their material in the center fountain. Not even a tenth the size of Central Park, this tiny plot appears just as popular.
The most notable landmark in the park is undoubtedly the Washington Arch. The structure, which was originally constructed of wood, was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our first president's inauguration. Peer north through the arch and you can see the beginning of Fifth Avenue.
The West Village area contains many landmark streets and buildings. Especially notable is Washington Mews, located between Fifth and University Avenues. Many of the homes on this cobblestone street were once stable houses for the buildings on Washington Square North. Strolling through here is recommended for anyone who has ever wanted to know what European villages are like.
Another historically significant building is located on 75½ Bedford Street. At 9½ feet, this converted carriage entrance is New York's narrowest dwelling. Why would someone want to live in something so narrow? At one time, taxes were assessed on building owners based on the width of their residence. So this brownstone could actually be viewed as a tax loophole!
Continue following Bedford Street west, and eventually you will run into Christopher Street, the center of the gay and lesbian community. The sheer number of stores and restaurants on the street, many of them owned by people living in the area, make this a natural place for a pleasant day of window shopping.
It is also on Christopher Street where one of the most historically significant events in the gay rights movement occurred. At a bar called the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, a group of gay men finally grew tired of watching other members of their community being arrested, and they fought back. The riots that erupted on that evening at 51 Christopher became a rallying cry for the gay movement.
Yet another street not to miss is Bleecker between Sixth Avenue and LaGuardia Place. Here you'll find the best strip of music clubs in town, with no less than four all concentrated in this small area. Many of these places have been hosting unknowns since Peter, Paul and Mary used to play here. After the gig, there are several outdoor cafes near MacDougal Street where you can enjoy coffee and a slice of cake as you watch the people walk by.
Because of the irregular grid structure, and the high volume of traffic, the village is one neighborhood where it's better not to have a car. Most conveniences are only a block or so away, and the beauty of the brownstones are best viewed on foot. It's no wonder that this area has remained such a popular place to maintain an apartment in New York.