Shopping With Edna St. Vincent Millay, or, the End of the Village


Are you undulating, provocative, abstract, reflective, iconic, or curvaceous? No? Then you’re obviously vastly inferior to architect Charles Gwathmey’s new “Sculpture for Living,” the weird, twisty high rise sheathed in aquamarine-colored glass that towers over little Astor Place, where the above attributes, spelled out on giant signs, advertise the laudable qualities of the spanking new residences within.

The arrival of this monstrosity just about erases what used to be the great divide between the West and the East Village: the West, with its old-guard bohemians holed up in brownstones, reading big books and listening to Bartok; the East, bursting with younger, more raffish denizens blasting no-wave music from tenement windows.

These charming archetypes are now just a memory. The Gwathmey apartments start at $3 million (but then again, you’re a stone’s throw from Kmart and Veselka, and who can put a price on that?). As if to shrug its square shoulders in protest, the famous Alamo cube—which for decades has stood on the concrete triangle across from the Astor Place subway station-has recently left the room, with only its metal core forlornly holding the spot. (The official word is that it’s been removed for cleaning, but we have our suspicions.)

The galumphing Gwathmey is such a horror that we run screaming toward more genteel turf—not east, where the dissolute frat boy atmosphere of an early spring night can work our nerves, but west, to visit the home of our friend Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Now Edna knew how to live: Her tiny house, at 79 1/2 Bedford Street, is a model of diminutive graciousness. Here the poet wrote “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 and concerns a mother who croaks after knitting mysterious clothes for her half-starving, half-naked son. (I mean, clothes are important, but come on. . .)

What would Edna—who, sad poem to the contrary, was in her youth very much a good-time girl (Edmund Wilson once famously made love to her lower half while poet John Peale Bishop concerned himself with the upper)—think of her old neighborhood these days? Though it’s hardly a retail paradise, we’re happy to find two shops on Bedford. The Lively Set at Number 33 (can it be named for the 1962 film with James Darren and Pamela Tiffin?) is full of collectibles and ambitious price tags: A white porcelain sconce that might have hailed from a turn-of-the-century Woolworth’s is now $125; a handmade Arts and Crafts pillow is $235. A few doors down, the newly opened Point, where the main business is knitting lessons, invites visitors to “eat, knit, surf, and be happy.” For our part, we’ll skip the surfing and sewing, preferring to shove a cinnamon bun in our mouths and concentrate on one of the limited number of ready-made items on display. (A midnight blue shrug with silvery trim is $63.)

As long as we’re in the neighborhood, we decide to visit Bleecker Street, which, in the last two years or so, has been all but overrun by an onslaught of Cynthia Rowleys, Marc Jacobses, and Ralph Laurens. If the tipping point concept can be applied to a street, this rue has tipped but good, and, it would seem, irrevocably.

Still, some of the shops now entrenched here maintain a glimmer of the old ways. Satya Jewelry, at 330 Bleecker, has delicate silvery pieces whose roots are deep in rich-hippie culture; Condomania harks back to an era when Greenwich Village was synonymous with sexual freedom. (It would have shocked Edna not at all.) Other merchandise evinces a fey, downtown appeal: There are wedgie espadrilles for the lively set at Olive and Bette, if warm weather ever arrives, which at this point seems unlikely; flamingos decorate the summery purses at the irristable Lulu Guinness.

Cunning this merchandise may be, but it’s hard not to mourn. In the window of Marc by Marc Jacobs, the trailblazing retailer in these parts who is generally held responsible for the attendant onslaught of boutiques, there are two mannequins. One is wearing a wispy ersatz-thrift shop dress over jeans; the other sports a baggy sweater paired with a flimsy skirt. In other words, both dolls are garbed in the shambling, offhand fashion of iconic village girls, those brave women who could never, ever afford Marc Jacobs and used to live around here.