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Village keeps its vanguard

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / October 8, 2006

Long celebrated as an enclave for the avant-garde and radical political movements, Greenwich Village is reinventing itself once again, perhaps more radically than ever before.

This former nexus of bohemian culture, where Bob Dylan transformed folk music and artist Marcel Duchamp proclaimed the founding of ``The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village ," is going upscale. ``The Village" is morphing block by block and store by store into something new and quite different: an enclave for the wealthy.

``The Village is so changed I don't even know it," said Stan Satlin, a composer who has lived in the artist building called Westbeth for more than 30 years. ``I notice that whenever a restaurant or store closes, a real estate office opens in its place."

Located in lower Manhattan, between Houston and 14th streets, and from the Hudson River to Broadway, the Village was a marshland when the Dutch settled there in the 1600s. The hamlet became an English village in 1712, distinct from the larger island of Manhattan.

Today, the area retains the sense of a small town within a larger metropolis, with narrow, twisting streets that are named rather than numbered, four-story brownstones sporting window boxes, small parks and playgrounds, and handsomely designed restaurants and shops.

Burt Harris, who until 2004 owned the fashionable Nadine's restaurant on the corner of Bank and Greenwich streets (now home to the Paris Commune restaurant, which relocated from Bleecker Street) , has seen a lot of changes.

``When we first opened Nadine's in 1987 , our clientele was half gay and half straight. As AIDS hit, the center of gravity changed. The neighborhood now is extraordinarily populated by families with children and dogs," said Harris, standing on a corner with his 9-year-old daughter and black Labrador by his side.

On one block of Hudson Street, down from the famous lesbian haven Rubyfruit Bar and Grill, and the late poet Dylan Thomas's favorite pub, the White Horse Tavern -- two Village institutions still alive and kicking -- you'll find Kids RX, a pharmacy specializing in children's health, a hair salon for kids , a maternity clothing store, and a pet store.

Farther north, where Hudson splits into Eighth and Nine avenues and Bleecker Street begins, more changes are afoot. Where once antique s shops dominated this stretch of Bleecker, now every other place is a designer clothing boutique with names like James Perse and Ralph Lauren.

``Another thing I've noticed is that hair salons are now ` day spas,' " said Satlin. Where once you could stop and get a haircut, now you can add a deep-pore facial, Swedish body rub, pedicure, or aloe wax to your bill.

Tourists who never ventured off Fifth Avenue uptown are also discovering the Village. It's not unusual to see tour buses unloading passengers who line the street to buy a cupcake at the Magnolia Bakery, made famous by the HBO television show ``Sex and the City."

Food has always been part of the Village experience. The neighborhood is chock a block with specialty pastry shops, gourmet cheese markets, seafood and butcher shops, and restaurants of every nationality. Some have been around for decades.

We were lucky to stumble upon Michael Karp, a tour guide from Foods of New York, as he emerged from Faicco's Italian market carrying a plate of steaming arancini (stuffed fried rice balls) for his appreciative tour group. Karp's three-hour excursion offers tastings from eight establishments and information on the architecture and history of the Village.

``I've lived here for 22 years. I add a personal touch to the tour," said Karp, who led his group away discussing how the independent spirit of the Village promotes the ice cream at Cones while discouraging chain stores.

One can eat , shop , and walk all day and still not see all the Village has to offer . Charming discoveries are around every corner.

One area food lovers shouldn't miss is Cornelia Street. One block long, between Bleecker and West 4th, it has enough great restaurants for a week of fine dining. We were drawn at lunchtime to the outdoor garden of Palma, a Mediterranean restaurant featuring seafood and pasta.

Other choices on the block include Mario Batali's Po, Rebecca Charles's oyster bar Pearl, the casual Cornelia Street Cafe (which presents poetry, jazz, or cabaret every evening ), the Home Restaurant, which offers artisanal meats, cheeses, and wine, the French bistro Le Gigot, and Little Havana, an upscale Cuban eatery.

Not everything has changed in the Village and some hidden places are worth seeking out, like Chumley's, an Irish pub and former speakeasy . There are two entrances, neither easy to locate, one on Bedford Street, the other on Barrow, reached through an archway and a small courtyard. And tucked around the corner on quiet residential Commerce Street is the Cherry Lane Theater, the oldest continuously running off-Broadway theater in New York.

Though it's true that Li-Lac Chocolates abandoned its Christopher Street location for Eighth Avenue , there's still an aura of the bohemian on this block where McNulty's Rare Coffee and Tea serves a strong brew, gay pride flags fly, and you can have your fortune told at Marie's.

For a taste of the wild old days, plan a trip to the Village on Halloween, where the annual parade is, according to its website, ``an ad-hoc pageant of masqueraders, mummers, drag queens, exhibitionists, drunkards, druggies, puppets and pets."

The farther east you head along Bleecker, the funkier it becomes , until you reach the strip between MacDougal Street and LaGuardia Place where leather shops, bars, clubs, body- piercing shops, T-shirt stores, pizza joints, and Chinese buffet rule .

In one block, clubs like Kenny's Castaways and the Back Fence pepper their walls with posters for upcoming acts like Straight Dope Cherry and Shaun Barker. It's a lively area at night, reminding its fans that the Village has not succumbed to an extreme 21st-century makeover.

The bohemian spirit is alive and flourishing, just a little harder to find .

Contact Necee Regis, a freelance writer in Boston and Miami, at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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