BY MICHAEL A. ARMSTRONG | Newspapers are living things and those who love them measure success by endurance. Over 80 years, through cultural, political and economic upheavals in its community — not to mention the leadership of a few dozen different editors and publishers over the decades — The Villager continues to be an important institution in one of the city’s most distinctive communities.
The leading Page One stories in the very first edition produced by Walter and Isabel Bryan on April 13, 1933, included a report about the arrival of George Bernard Shaw in New York (“He poses for photographs but has little to say to reporters”) and a report of the annual meeting of the Washington Square Association at the Fifth Avenue Hotel (“The Associaiton plays a highly important part in all civic matters pertaining to the district…”). Other headlines were “Held in Robbing (Gene) Tunney’s Pal,” “Street Car and Taxi Crash” and “Illness May Prevent ‘Jimmy’s’ [Walker] Wedding.”
Walter and Isabel Bryan probably turned over in their proverbial graves many times during the 15 years of our stewardship. At the time we took charge of The Villager in 1977, the genteel community they had so lovingly covered was altered — not so completely in physical terms, but certainly in demographic and cultural terms. As I have explored the streets of the Village and environs over recent years, I see continuing change that is every bit as overwhelming as that which occurred since we left The Villager ourselves. I’m sure Editor Lincoln Anderson will probably be able to say the same thing himself in another 10 years.
As Villager editor and publisher between 1977 and 1992, I also represented community weeklies in New York City as regional director of the 200-member New York Press Association. We were proud to match up our Villager newspaper against publications from all across the state, as we often won best-in-state awards year after year for coverage of local government, education, arts, business and individual writing honors.
One reason we were so good was that we had plenty of raw material to work with. We covered a historic community with a strong sense of its past and a determination to preserve the best of it against inappropriate development or over-commercialization. Tensions between residential and commercial interests, a sometime-callous (or indifferent) municipal government, huge institutional forces, and the insatiable appetite of people to live and play in the Village, regularly presented new, fresh opportunities to bring out the best in reporters. So did an active political scene, thanks to the Village Independent Democrats and the upstart Village Reform Democratic Club — and the clientele of the Lion’s Head.
Issues included zoning changes, sidewalk cafe permits, landmarks challenges, various N.Y.U. expansions, and countless quality-of-life concerns. We saw and reported the transformation of commercial streets, e.g. Christopher St., Eighth St., University Place, Sixth Ave., Broadway, Third Ave., just to name some. We covered the demise of Westway in our early years, reported on the gentrification of the West Village and turmoil at Westbeth, and chronicled the argument over whether to permit removal of those curious elevated rail tracks that have since become the High Line park. The West Village owes a debt of gratitude to real estate entrepreneur Bill Gottleib, who fathered more restaurants than anyone we know, and whose unique business practices resulted in the preservation of many buildings that might have been lost.
The legalization of loft living to provide working space for artists led to the transformation of Soho, proof of how some unintended consequences have a bitter bite. And we reported on the insatiable push that brought artists and outliers into conflict with developers and gentrifiers that moved our coverage area into the East Village. Wonder if anyone remembers Adam Purple and the Garden of Eden? Or if any “survivors” of the Tompkins Square Park riots still live in the East Village?
Among the most severe tragedies reflected in our Villager pages was an emerging awareness of the scourge of AIDS and H.I.V. The difference in Village life before and after AIDS could be compared to the difference in city life before and after 9/11. Not only did the Village become a center of commerce for the gay and lesbian community as its members emerged from the shadows of city life after Stonewall, it also became ground zero for advocacy for gay (and then lesbian) rights and the source of support for those afflicted by the disease and public education about it.
The Villager had several homes over the years of our tenure. Finding ourselves in an office building on Fifth Ave. at the start, we quickly relocated to a more appropriate, accessible second-floor space over Sweet Basil’s on Seventh Ave. South. In the mid-’80s, rising rents and an expanding coverage to the east brought us to a storefront on E. Fourth St., a location that was particularly compatible with our expanded coverage of Off and Off Off Broadway and experimental theater.
Speaking of that coverage, we took great pride in our annual Villager Theater Awards, the inspiration of our prescient theater editor, John Patterson. The ’80s was a time of great ferment in the artistic community with dozens of productions taking place every year in some of the most raw spaces. “Experimental” was definitely the word for many of the short-run presentations, but much worthy work went unheralded in the media, so we began to cover the scene. And we created the Village Theater Awards to honor the best of it, an awards program that was as much a celebration of the scene. Thank you, Art D’Lugoff and the Village Gate, for providing us a home for these celebrations for four straight years.
As for some of our special Villager moments, we fondly remember the first years of the Village Halloween Parade, when celebrants wound their way through neighborhood streets west of Fifth Ave., and The Villager staff contingent was one of the most exuberant. Then there was the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Villager, celebrated at the Salmagundi Club with Mayor Ed Koch there to participate in the fete. Years later, people still talked about our Year-End Open House where Councilman at Large Henry Stern worked the crowd to sell his N.Y.C.-branded neckties. (I think I still have mine somewhere).
Elections are about making choices and choosing sides. We endorsed someone in virtually every race, but the choice that stands in my memory is that of Reverend Jesse Jackson in the New York presidential primary. My favorite photo of all time shows Jackson carrying a framed copy of the editorial in a pre-Election Day parade, And yes, he won the primary.
Early in our tenure, The Villager staff rose to an unusual challenge as we went “daily” when a bitter strike shut down the citywide newspapers in August 1978. We published four days a week for several weeks until other strike newspapers came in to fill the void. It was wonderful to see us virtually alone on Village-area newsstands, selling out most days. Interestingly, that experience was a precursor to today’s intense Internet publishing schedule, as reporters and photographers came back to the office after covering a meeting, wrote their stories, and saw them in print on the stands 12 hours later.
There were some special Village people we covered. Vesuvio Bakery’s Tony Dapolito, as chairperson of Community Board 2, was perennially our number one news source and pro bono journalism instructor, patiently explaining the civic lay of the land to successive generations of Villager reporters. There was Ruth Wittenberg, the venerable West Village landmark activist, who, in the midst of contentious approval process for the replacement building for the infamous Weather Underground site, converted tension to humor by describing it a building with “a little indiscretion.” Ellen Stewart, the trailblazing LaMaMa theatrical entrepreneur, made us so welcome when we moved The Villager editorial offices to E. Fourth St.
Newspapers are a business, too, and advertisers are the lifeblood of publishers. We are grateful for the consistent support of some of the most community-minded businesses from our times, including Crossroads Wine & Liquor, Mad Monk, Jefferson Market, Balducci’s, Sazarac House, Art Kaiser, Sweet Basil, Minetta Tavern, Garvin’s, Garber’s Hardware, Caring Community, Greenwich House and, of course, many others. Thank you, Sally Markman and George Fiala, for working this side of the street for many years.
An editor’s job is to take the available words and photos and turn them into a package that readers want to receive week after week. We did that year after year thanks to creative and energetic writers, many of whom were learning the craft of journalism and experiencing their first published work. Dozens of professional awards over the years testify to their outstanding skills. Photographers Jeannie Black and Bill Biggart (who tragically lost his life while reporting at the World Trade Center site) were among those who consistently provided us with first-class photography to document the news. Other great photography came from Brian O’Donoghue and Stacy Rosenstock. Connecting the past to the present was the faithful volunteer work of Evelyn Patterson, whose “Way Back When” tidbits from earlier Villagers were part of every week’s edition. And, of course, there was Frank Cass, who regularly serviced our 80 newsstand outlets with the latest weekly edition. It would be appropriate to list the names of all my editorial colleagues here, but there’s not enough space. Some of them were: Chris Archer, Rob DeRocker, Mike Tomasky, Marianne Baker, John Patterson, Jeff Trachtman, Jon Ciner, Eileen Blair, Eric Goldstein, Andrew Jacobs, Betsy Herzog, Ken Godwin, Lillie Wright, Jim Sheehan, Steve Hart and… .
Armstrong and his community newspaper publishing company acquired The Villager in 1977 and sold it in 1992 to three of the company’s shareholders, Thomas and Elizabeth Butson and Nancy Flowers.