In their walk around Greenwich Village – the last artist walk of the Elastic City Walks Festival, which has a closing night benefit tonight – theater director Niegel Smith, playwright and novelist Sarah Schulman, and poet and walk artist Todd Shalom asked us to do things that, it is safe to say, no participants in a walking tour of Greenwich Village have ever been asked to do before — which was ok, because this was not a walking tour.
“We don’t call them walking tours,” said Shalom. “They’re artist walks.” And they come with assignments for the participants. We were asked to write quotations on blank bookmarks and then slip them surreptitiously into the books for sale at BookMarc, the bookstore by fashion designer Marc Jacobs that replaced Biography Bookstore on Bleecker Street. (I chose a quotation from Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”) We were asked to gather into pairs, and each duo choose a stoop on Perry Street to walk down as if an owner or tenant of the brownstone. We snuck into Patchin Place, one of the private cul-de-sacs in the Village, and were asked to create a scene between a long-time Village resident and a newcomer, feeding lines to the two walkers who had volunteered to portray them.
Since 2010, when Shalom founded Elastic City, some 80 artists have led walks like this all over the world (but mostly in New York), intended to make the “audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit.” At City Island, the walkers were given such assignments as “ear-cleansing exercises,” and asked to smell around and report back, as recounted and sketched by Roz Chast in the New Yorker.
The Village walk was more grounded in history — especially LGBT history, and class history. Schulman explained how the Village was created as a neighborhood of mixed economic classes — rich people fled to the bucolic setting after several epidemic scares in the city proper, but a penitentiary built in 1797 also lured both families of the inmates and prison workers to settle there. Niegel Smith introduced John McPherson, a young man he’d met at the pier, who read a personal essay about how the piers “offered the comfort I was deprived of” at home. Schulman introduced Jim Fouratt, a long-time gay activist who pointed out where the four lesbian bars were when he arrived in the neighborhood in 1960 (“You can only find two lesbian bars in the neighborhood now”), described his early life as a bohemian and “cultural bum,” and retold the story of the Stonewall riots. We ended the walk listening to a guest discourse on the Gay Liberation sculpture in Christopher Street Park by George Segal, and to an uninvited guest babble incoherently but with great passion.