News & Politics

The 1963 MacDougal Street Scene


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

May 23, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 31

The MacDougal Scene

By J.R. Goddard

At 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, half-deserted MacDougal Street moves in an indolent dream of its Village past.

Bearded kids, and girls with long, straight hair reaching far down their back, drift in and out of the Rienzi or the Pussycat. Over in the back room of the Figaro the crowd is a fraction livelier as they discuss French films, chess moves, and the latest Village gossip. On a doorstep nearby an old woman catches the same breeze that flaps the coffee house flags up and down the narrow canyon of MacDougal. She frowns and nudges her neighbor as a Negro man and white girl stroll by arm in arm. They rarely saw that on the street twelve years ago, and of course never in their native town in Italy.

Across the street Izzy Young wanders out of his Folklore Center to talk with two youngsters packing guitars like knapsacks on their backs. A cop moves a panhandler on his way. A young wife promenades with her child. A grocery clerk darts furtively into a gloomy tenement doorway to make his $2 bet. MacDougal Street — part old Italian quarter, part traditional seaport of Bohemia — idles and dozes as it has every sunny spring afternoon for fifty years.

But at 8 o’clock comes sea change.

MacDougal along with 3rd Street above it and Bleecker below, comes abruptly to life. Theatres, coffee houses, jewelry and gift shops, bars and strip joints, all of them beckon for business. The crowds oblige. by 10 o’clock its a deluge. Tourists, weekend neo-Beats, neighborhood strollers, motorcycle jockeys, barbituate peddlers, squawk-bird teenagers, cops, folk-singers, theatre-goers, Sneaky Pete bums, switchblade creeps — down they come, pushing, crowding, funneling together into the strangest clot of humanity south of Times Square.

In fact nightgown MacDougal is Times Square. Or Coney Island. Or Grotesquia, U.S.A. For in the past five or six years it has become one of New York’s biggest weekend draws, a role for which its narrow sidewalks and cramped parking facilities make it woefully unsuited.

It has become something else, too: the scene of increasing hostility and even violence. Where noise-angered neighborhood dwellers and the wave of outsiders making the noise sometimes clash. Where tourists often come away mumbling bitterly of being taken by clip-joint coffee houses. Where City-wide racial unease is focused in a few small blocks. And where season after season the incidence of fights, beatings, window smashing, and even murder has increased so markedly that a respected community leader this week said: “If we don’t get this situation under control now, I’m scared to death of what’s going to happen this summer.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


Most Popular