On MacDougal Street

This one is self-explanatory

Each evening before going home from work at Schrafft’s I’d make a stop, or several stops, on Macdougal Street, which at the time was the heart of Greenwich Village.  Yes, very few people, except for the local Italians, actually lived there, but it was a business center of sorts made up of one or two blocks with three bars (San Remo for gay men, Minetta Tavern for the locals, and the Kettle of Fish, a hangout for furniture movers) and three coffee shops (Café Reggio, Café Rienzi, and Café Figaro) and one other that came a bit later, the Café Caricature.  Slightly further north there was also the Provincetown Playhouse.  That was it, except for several lesbian bars on Carmine Street, and the Amato Opera Company on Bleecker Street, where grand opera was sung to the accompaniment of a single piano.  I saw my first opera and my first performance of La Traviata there.  And way over on the West Side was the White Horse Tavern.  Naturally, some of these places were more interesting to me than others.

The bars held absolutely no charm.  I had stopped drinking while still in Panama, the result of having gotten really sick drunk on Scotch whiskey.  After that I couldn’t even smell Scotch without bringing back the miserable experience.  The coffee shops were a different story.

At first there was just the Café Reggio.  A series of photographs of the Reggio and an accompanying story by Life Magazine (possibly it was Look) about the Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village had suddenly propelled it to national prominence, and started the boom that was instrumental in creating the modern Village as a tourist destination.  While some were already attracted to the Village, the flood was still to come.  By the time I returned to Macdougal Street, after military service, there were already four coffee shops on the street, the most popular of which were the Rienzi and Figaro.

Maxwell Bodenheim

The smallest of the coffee shops was the Café Caricature, whose door was decorated with a large caricature of the American poet, pulp-novelist (Naked on Roller Skates and other works) and literary wild man, Maxwell Bodenheim, who had been murdered in 1954.  The place was tiny and was frequented by players of the Japanese game of Go.  It was also frequented by folk musicians such as Dave Van Ronk and the young Bob Dylan and many others.  As I was neither a musician nor a Go player, I didn’t visit the place often, unless I was with some of my more musical friends.

Café Rienzi was popular for a variety of reasons.  Its background music was Italian opera. Besides espresso, cappuccino, and café-au-lait, it also offered delicious Italian pastries, small, marble-topped tables, ornate metal chairs, and a very smoky and cozy atmosphere.  For me, the mix of pastries, coffee and smoke was irresistible, bringing back memories of my father’s coffee shop in Brussels .  People sat, drank coffee, talked, read newspapers provided by management on wooden sticks, played chess or strummed guitars.  Late in the evening, an old man named Maurice, who had a long, disheveled beard and looked a bit like Walt Whitman showed up and went from table to table selling literary and foreign magazines unavailable anywhere else. And it was a wonderful place to play chess, until the management no longer allowed chess because its players monopolized tables for too long, and after all, business was business. Which now brings me to Café Figaro.

 

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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20 Responses to On MacDougal Street

  1. Rick Jones says:

    I guess that the cafes in the village are less smoky now owing to Mayor Bloomberg’s cruzade against smoking.

  2. AlexLevy says:

    They also no longer exist.
    A.

  3. Judy says:

    You really brought it back for me, Alex. And….there was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center where lots of us hung out after a Sunday singing and strumming in Washington Sq. Park.

    • AlexLevy says:

      Izzy’s, if I remember correctly, was located on 6th Avenue? Next to the Waverly movie theater? I was only peripherally involved with that scene, although the music on Sundays in Washington Square was something special! I guess I’m going to have to write a little post about that. . .

      • Judy says:

        Izzy’s was right on MacDougal – middle of the block. Coffee place right next door or a few doors down. Was that the Caricature?

  4. AlexLevy says:

    I also remember Izzy’s being either close to or in what became the Caricature on MacDougal Street. However, I’m pretty sure (and Linda confirms this) , that he was also next to the Waverley, on 6th Avenue, either before or after. Chronology is giving me a problem in these postings. . .
    Alex

  5. Judy says:

    I did a little research, Alex. Apparently the Folklore Center moved to Sixth Ave. around 1967. I was going down to the Square, followed by hanging around the FC, in the late 50’s. I didn’t know it had moved to Sixth Ave. later on.

  6. AlexLevy says:

    Good for you, Judy! I’m a little weak on chronology, but I knew the Folklore Center had been in both places, the 6th Avenue one stuck in my memory, and the one on MacDougal was more than a bit hazy.
    A.

  7. Bob Pliskin says:

    Izzie’s Folklore Center was, for a time, on MacDougal, and for a time on 6th, next to the Waverly. For many years he’s been in Stockholm, Sweden with his place, Folklore Centrum.

  8. Laura says:

    Hello!

    I am a graduate student at NYU and I’m researching the history of this section of MacDougal Street (between Bleecker and West 3rd). I’m still working out a focus, but I think I’d like to concentrate on the 60s, the revitalization of folk music, the coffee shops and music venues on the street at the time.

    I was wondering what time period it was when you visited MacDougal Street after work, and then when you came back after your time in the service? Also, do you happen to recall the title, or have access to, the Time Magazine article that featured Cafe Reggio?

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, from looking at your blog it certainly seems like not all were as lighthearted as drinking coffee with friends. As a researcher, personal anecdotes are always a real treat.

  9. Researching Steve McQueen and Greenwich Village…can anyone help please?!

    I’ve made a start: http://www.DonInNewYork.com

  10. Gene (Gino) Rankin says:

    I hung out on MacDougal in the early 60s, mostly at the Cafe Rienzi, the Kettle of Fish, and the Fat Black Pussycat (couldn’t afford the Figaro nor the Gaslite) – and, of course, the Square. I still hang out every year – in September – at the reunions of old folkies at the Square. The places are mostly gone, many of the friends are no longer with us, but those who remain are wonderful to meet up with again.

  11. Don says:

    Alex, Grover Van Dexter had a toy shop at 283 Bleecker Street. He lived with Steve McQueen in Greenwich Village and I’m trying to locate the address. I’m attempting to piece the jig saw together of McQueen’s life in the village during the 1950’s:

    http://www.DonInNewYork.com is my website and if you scroll down you can read my findings.

    Can you please help in locating this address…

    Regards,

    Don – don.whistance@icloud.com

    • AlexLevy says:

      I know you posted this a long time ago, but I’d forgotten about it. And sorry about being unable to provide any information regarding McQueen. Had it been Warren Oats. . . I believe we shared a girlfriend for a while. . . 😉
      Alex

  12. Gary Goldberger says:

    Hello Alex,

    Thank you so very much for your article. You generated some vivid memories. The first was in 1966, in a step down record store on the east side of MacDougal St., where I saw Bob Dylan for the first time. The second was, playing chess one evening over coffee to the rear of Cafe Rienzi for hours. Thanks for kindling the memories Alex!

  13. jaki gottfried says:

    i remember cafe carricature, think her name was liz, but could still pick her out
    of a crowd – starting date was 1952 – my junior year in high school, and it
    was our saturday nite habit after square/folk dancing at community church –
    think this was before rienzi –
    sometimes cafe was after pizza at john’s –

    • AlexLevy says:

      Yes, was probably before Rienzi. I think it was in ’53 that the Look article featuring Cafe Reggio appeared, the same year I graduated from Seward Park High School. I used to go folk dancing at the Henry Street Settlement House, on Saturday night; the caller was one of the directors of the place; I think his name was Henry Tafferteller, or Mr. T. I met the first love of my life there, and walked back from Henry Street to the Washington Square with her that night. Wish I could remember her name, but she was my introduction to the Village. For me, Cafe Caricature and Rienzi came later.
      Alex

  14. joel a rose says:

    Alex, thank you for your very interesting article about McDougal Street. It brought back wonderful memories of Greenwich Village, especially Cafe Rienzi.

    I graduated from NYU in 1958 and my friends and I frequently visited Rienzi’s.

    One incident clearly stands out in my memory . On one very cold and snowy night, while my friends and I were having coffee, an exceptionally pretty girl entered the Cafe. I was dumbstruck by the appearance of this girl.

    A little old lady who, on occasion, stood inside the front door and sold flowers from a wicket basked she carried on her arm.

    I waved to the flower lady and she came over to our table. I paid her for a flower and asked her to give it to the girl I admired.

    The flower lady arrived at the girl’s table, handed the flower to her and pointed to me at exactly the same time the girl’s date arrived at the table.

    The girl smiled, her date frowned at me and I waved back at them.

    I had seen the same type of scenario in a Cary Grant movie and he ended up with the girl. I was very disappointed that the result of my bold action did not replicate Cary’s experience.

  15. Tony Trauring says:

    In the spring and summer of 1965 I worked at a place I remember as the Cafe Shalom-Rienzi, sort-of across the street from The Gaslight. The owners were a one-armed Israeli freedom fighter and his Italian mama wife who taught me to make a spaghetti sauce that still wows my friends today.

    Was this the cafe Rienzi you wrote about? I was only 17, so I probably was oblivious to much of the important stuff that was going on around me.

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