Bastille Day Remembrance: The South Village Was Once the Quartier Francaise

Au Chat Noir was one of many cafes in French Quarter, located south of Washington Square Park. Image via the New York Public Library.

Au Chat Noir was one of many cafes in French Quarter, located south of Washington Square Park. Image via the New York Public Library.

In honor of Bastille Day this Sunday, July 14, we here at Off the Grid thought we would take a look at the French Quarter, a small area south of Washington Square with a large French population in the latter decades of the 19th century. This area, part of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District and currently calendared by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, housed the apartments and shops of many French immigrants.

Scribner's Monthly published a tour of the French Quarter in November of 1879.

Scribner’s Monthly published a tour of the French Quarter in November of 1879.

In 1879, eight years after the Paris Commune, or as many call it, the Fourth French Revolution, a lengthy article was published in Scribner’s Monthly featuring a tour of the Quartier Français. The author’s nativist sentiments are clear when he describes the citizens of the quarter, noting “the brazen faces of idle and vicious women” and that they “earn little and spend less.” Nevertheless, the article does reveal much about the neighborhood: residents spoke French, shops sold goods that were clearly imported from France, and tenements housed many families employed making artificial flowers and leaves. And we learn more about some of the offerings in the neighborhood’s many restaurants and cafes, such as soupe aux croutons, pommes frites, gruyere, wine, and absinthe.

A french bakery on Greene Street.

A french bakery on Greene Street.

Author John Strausbaugh notes the neighborhood’s appeal to the students, intellectuals, and Bohemians of the Village in his book The Village: 400 Years of Beats, Bohemians, Radicals, and Rogues, highlighting the appeal of such cafes as Au Chat Noir, Café de Paris, and the Taverne Alsacienne.

Other than a free-wheeling spirit and a certain joie de vivre, there is little visible evidence left of the South Village’s former French heritage today.  But if you take a stroll this Bastille Day, you may just encounter some ghosts of the old Quartier Français.

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Sheryl Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP's Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.