For some part of the 19th century there was a vibrant and busy French Quarter south of Washington Square Park — now known as Greenwich Village.
The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw the growing commercialization of the Village, a second wave of immigration encroaching on the elegant residences, and the efforts of residents to resist change. The area, already well known as New York City’s bohemia, was home to many of the cafes and restaurants where artists, writers, and other counter-culture intellectuals congregated. In the 1850s, the earlier described Pfaff’s was the bohemian haunt of choice, but in the 1880s the growing French Quarter between Laurens and Broadway provided the best locations for living the bohemian lifestyle. The French immigrants who settled here were part of a new wave of immigrant groups to New York which also included Irish and Italians. Many of the new immigrants began settling in Greenwich Village and quickly over populated the area.1
I have not been able to pinpoint a date when this community was completely assimilated into the city, but it was still there in the 1880s, as indicated by an article in Scribner’s Monthly in 1879.
I CONFESS to finding no little pleasure in lazy explorations of the region that lies west of Broadway, south of Washington Square, and north of Grand street. This is the Quartier Francais of New York. The commonplace, heterogeneous style of the buildings, and the unswerving rectangular course of the streets are American, but the people are nearly all French. French, too, is the language of the signs over the doors and in the windows; and the population is of the lowest and poorest class. The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hȏtel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia. There are secret meetings in obscure little cafés, into which strangers seldom enter; where the last movements of the Nihilists are discussed, and the would be regicide is commended over draughts of absinthe and more innocent beer. Mademoiselle Berthe, with her little sisters, fabricates roses and violets out of muslin and wax in the high attics of the tenement houses. Madame Lange, with her arms and neck exposed, may be seen ironing snowy linen in front of an open window. Here is Triquet, le charcutier; Roux, le bottier; Malvaison, le marchand de vin; Givac, le charcutier Alsacien, and innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner vin compris,may be had for the veriest trifle.
Another description of the French Quarter:
For a period of years that section immediately to the south of the Square was the French Quarter. There were the peaceful artisans, and also there were political refugees of dangerous proclivities, men who had had a share in the blazing terrors of the Commune, and who, in some cases, had paid the price in years of imprisonment under the tropical sun of Cayenne. In all their wanderings they had carried the spirit of revolution with them and spouted death to despots over their glasses of absinthe in cellar cafes. William H. Rideing, in an article which was published in ” Scribner’s Magazine ” for November, 1879 [mentioned above], described these men as he had found them in the Taverne Alsacienne in Greene Street : “gathered around the tables absorbed in piquet, ecarte, or vingt-et-un . . . most of them without coats, the shabbiness of their other garments lighted up by a brilliant red bandanna kerchief or a crimson over-shirt.” Keen glances were shot at strangers, for the tavern had a certain clientele outside of which it had few customers and suspicion was rife at any invasion.” They are drinking wine, vermouth, and greenish opaline draughts of absinthe. Staggering in unnerved and stupefied from the previous night’s debauch, they show few signs of vitality until four or five glasses of the absinthe have been drunk, and then they awaken; their eyes brighten and their tongues are loosened —the routine of play, smoke, and alcohol is resumed.”
Pleasanter to recall are the sober, industrious men and women who were denizens of the neighborhood in the years gone by—Mademoiselle Berthe and her little sisters, fabricating roses and violets out of muslin and wax in their attic apartment, Madame Lange, the blanchisseuse ironing in front of an open window, Triquet, the charcutier, Roux, the bottier, Malvaison, the marchand de vin. Then there were others of the colony, higher in the social scale and less prosperous in their finances, the impecunious music-teachers and professors of languages who maintained themselves with a frosty air of shabby gentility on a very slender income, and the practitioners of literature and art who maintained themselves somehow on no income at all. For the leisure hours of these there were the innocent wine-shops of South Fifth Avenue, such as the Brasserie Pigault, which Bunner introduced to the readers of ” The Midge ” with a quaint conceit. The sign of the little cafe from without read: ” A LA VILLE DE ROUEN. J. PIGAULT. LAGER BEER. FINE WINES AND LIQUEURS.” But its regular patrons knew it best from within, from the warm tables they liked to scan the letters backward, against the glass that protected them from the winter’s night. It was a quaint haunt, where gathered Doctor Peters and Father Dube, and Parker Prout, the old artist who had failed in life because of too much talent, and M. Martin, and the venerable Potain, who had lost his mind after his wife’s death, and Ovide Marie, the curly-haired musician from Amity Street.
But the prize exhibit, the piece de resistance, of that old Bohemia of the French Quarter to the south of Washington Square was the Restaurant du Grand Vatel in Bleecker Street. Not only the French strugglers, but American artists and authors in embryo used to dine there substantially and economically. As Mr. Rideing described it :
” The floor is sanded, and the little tables are covered with oil-cloth, each having a pewter cruet in the centre. A placard flutters from the wall, announcing a grand festival, banquet, ball, and artistic tombola in celebration of the eighth anniversary of the bloody revolution of March 18, 1871, under the auspices of the ‘Societe des Refugies de la Commune’ — Family tickets, twenty-five cents, hat-room checks, ten cents —from which we gather that the Restaurant du Grand Vatel has some queer patrons. The landlady sits behind a little desk in the corner. She is a woman of enormous girth, with short petticoats which reveal her thick, white woolen socks; her complexion is dark, her eyes are black and deep, and large golden rings dangle from her ears.”
The regular patrons begin to come in. The poor professor, after his unprofitable labours of the day, enters, and bows to the landlady, who is cordial or severe in her greeting according to the items on the little slate which records her accounts. He begins his meal.
“He has coupe aux croutons, veau a la Marengo, pommes frites, a small portion of Gruyere, and a bottle of wine. He eats appreciatively after the manner of a bon vivant; he uses his napkin gently and frequently; he glances blandly at the surroundings; watching him, you would suppose the viands were the choicest of the season, exquisitely prepared, while, in reality, they are poor and insubstantial stuff, the refuse, perhaps, of better restaurants. Having finished the edibles, he calls for a ‘gloria,’ that is, black coffee and cognac; and, sipping this, he communes with his fancies which come and vanish in the blue waves of cigarette smoke. His aspect bespeaks perfect complacency—Fate can-not harm me; I have dined today.”
To Mr. Rideing we are indebted for certain items indicating the very moderate scale of prices at the Restaurant du Grand Vatel. Outside there was a sign that read : “Tous les plats, eight cents ; plats extra varies; cafe superieur, three cents; cafe au lait, five cents.”
Here is a list of some of the dishes and their cost:
- Soup and a plate of beef and bread, 10¢
- Soupe aux croutons, 5¢
- Boeuf, legumes, 10¢
- Veau a la Marengo, 12¢
- Mouton a Ravigotte, 10¢
- Ragout de mouton aux pommes, 8¢
- Boeuf braise aux oignons, 10¢
- Macaroni an gratin, 6¢
- Celeri salade, 6¢
- Compote de pommes, 4¢
- Fromage Neufchatel, 3¢; Limbourg, 4¢; Gruyere, 3¢
- Bread, 1¢
Thus, Mr. Rideing figured out, the professor’s dinner, wine included, cost him the sum of forty cents, and with five cents added for a roll and a cup of coffee in the morning, his daily expenditure for food was less than half a dollar.
Maurice, Arthur Bartlett. “Trails of Bohemia” (Chapter 10) Fifth Avenue. Dodd, Mead, 1918. Print.
The French Quarter is mentioned many times in The Gilded Hour, first as a neighborhood very close to Waverly Place that Sophie, Anna and Cap explored as children. Particular houses of ill repute were mentioned in an infamous guide to houses of prostitution:
Nos. 111, 127, 136, 139 and 141 W. 3rd St.
Feuding sisters Marie and Mathilde Hermann owned half a dozen French brothels on this infamous block, including one disguised as a cigar store. Mathilde took (unsuccessful) steps to stop her 18-year-old niece from entering the family business.
See also: Bastille Day Remembrance: The South Village Was Once the Quartier Francaise