Reliving History: A Walking Tour Through NYC’s Village

Village Voices 2022, a public outdoor exhibition, celebrates the artistic, social, and political movements of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho. Significant people, places, and occasions, noted for contributions to the development of cultural and civic history, are illuminated by 23 interactive outdoor shadowboxes and two multifaceted installations. The exhibition takes place until October 30.

An interactive mapencourages walkers to wend their way through the Village neighborhoods, designating locales where distinguished Village residents lived and worked. Included are artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Edward Hopper, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, choreographers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, photographer Helen Levitt, writers James Baldwin and Maurice Sendak, poets E.E. Cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, journalist Jane Jacobs, theater director Joseph Papp, singers Billie Holiday and Leontyne Price, musicians Charlie Parker and Patti Smith, scientist John William Draper and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Leaders in their fields, many of those highlighted were at the forefront of social change. The Northern Dispensary, an early medical facility for the working poor, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the site of the deadliest industrial disaster of the time, are also designated

Billy Holiday. Serge Ossorguine of Serge Audio, Inc. designed the digital and audio components. MADE Design/Build constructed the boxes. Photo by Barbara Wagner Communications

Noteworthy Village residents, Rachel Maddow, John Leguizamo, Norman Reedus, Ed Norton, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ronson, Grace Gummer, and Kathleen Chalfant, among others, narrate the shadowboxes, accessible via QR code.  

Two multifaceted installations address issues of social justice and human rights. The installation at 70 Fifth Avenue outside The New School building, a 20-foot-high window display, honors the work of Black activists W.E.B. Du BoisIda B. WellsLangston HughesZora Neale Hurston, among others; this was also the home of the NAACP from 1914 until the mid-1920s. 

Honoring Black activists at 70 Fifth Avenue. Photo by Barbara Wagner Communications

The platform installation at Gansevoort Plaza, A Monument to Choice, carries the inscription, I Stand for Choice. An experiential and social media opportunity, viewers literally take a stand as they step atop the monument to proclaim choice in all its meanings and iterations.

A Monument to Choice, a public monument in Gansevoort Plaza, designed by Doyle Partners and constructed by MADE Design/Build. Photo by Catherine Tharin

Village Preservation, the New York City-based organization, has successfully advocated for the landmark designation of more than 1,250 buildings in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho. The producer of Village Voices 2021 and 2022, Village Preservation hopes to continue this project as an annual tour.

“Our Village forebears were courageous leaders and changemakers of civil rights and cultural movements,” states Leslie Mason, member of Village Preservation’s Board of Trustees and a lifelong Village resident. “Advocacy in all its forms is in the bones of our community. With this exhibition, we celebrate the courageous innovators, amplify their voices, and hope to carry their examples forward.”

Two remarkable dancers, leaders of the companies in which they danced, are Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Patricia Lent, Director of Licensing for the Merce Cunningham Trust. Shadowboxes located at the entrance of WestBeth, the artist housing and studio complex, in which the Cunningham company studio resided and where the Graham company now resides, highlight the life’s work of each choreographer. Leslie Mason, dance critic Francis Mason’s daughter, and the renowned choreographer, Mark Morris, narrate the boxes respectively.

Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company commented, Martha Graham was “inspired by ideas.  She was a voracious reader.  But she also always had her finger on the pulse of the times — she just seemed to absorb, even anticipate, the ideas and trends that were in the air. So, she would have been highly sensitive to any political activity.  And we can see from her politically motivated dances in the late 1930s that she was railing against the fascism of the day. She was an individualist.” Graham’s studio was located on 5th Avenue and 12th Street in the 1930s and 40s.

The Martha Graham Shadowbox

Serge Ossorguine of Serge Audio, Inc. designed the digital and audio components. MADE Design/Build constructed the boxes. Photo by Barbara Wagner Communications

Lent remarks, I began taking daily technique classes at the Merce Cunningham Studio in the summer of 1982.  I was new to New York, figuring out what I could about the city’s geography and spirit by taking long walks here, there, and everywhere.  One of the places I walked to on a daily basis was WestBeth and in going to and fro, I grew to know the Village as a neighborhood untamed by the uptown grid with surprises around every corner.  Surprises that, over time, became familiar and treasured landmarks.”

The Merce Cunningham Shadowbox

Serge Ossorguine of Serge Audio, Inc. designed the digital and audio components. MADE Design/Build constructed the boxes. Photo by Barbara Wagner Communications

Lent considers the impact of a Village space on Cunningham’s choreography, The vastness of the WestBeth studio, and the majestic view through its tall, arched windows — to the east over the Village rooftops and to the west of the Hudson River — had a profound and immeasurable effect on Merce’s work. Time and space, space and time.”

By daily monitoring thousands of important buildings below 14th Street, Village Preservation supports innovators’ life work, thereby ensuring a physical remembrance through architecture that is crucial to Village history. Andrew Berman, Executive Director of Village Preservation, says “We look forward to welcoming neighbors, New Yorkers, and tourists from all over to come and enjoy while learning about the significant history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.”

Upcoming event:

Radical Social Movements in the Village and the Battle for Free Speech. Tuesday, October 6, 2022 6pm, Webinar, Free, Registration Required

By Catherine Tharin, former dancer with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company and former senior adjunct professor of dance at Iona College, completed 15 years as the influential curator and programmer of dance and performance at the 92nd Street Y. An associate editor and senior contributor to The Dance Enthusiast, Catherine also choreographs, teaches, and continues to curate.


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