Celebrating Dissent and Adventure with the Arch Conspirators

It was 100 years ago on January 23rd that a group of Village bohemians – artists, poets, writers, actors – had had enough. They had moved to Greenwich Village to live their own kind of lives, free of convention, free of rampant capitalism and moralizing, free of strict social rules they felt degraded society rather than held it together. But while Greenwich Village provided that haven for a time, nothing lasts forever. Villagers began to feel that those damaging ideologies were making their way into their own counter-culture enclave. And on January 23rd, 1917, they were going to do something about it.

How could they register their dissent? They knew, like many generations have known since, that they must take to the streets. So they targeted what then, as now, was the symbol of Greenwich Village itself – Washington Square Arch. While New Yorkers were not allowed to climb to the top of the Arch at night, security may have been a little looser back then. Our dissenters – painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, poet Gertrude Drick, and Provincetown Playhouse actors Alan Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and Charles Ellis – threw open the door to the Arch, and climbed to the top of the stairs. They pushed open the door to the roof, and laid out in front of them was the entirety of their beloved, nurturing neighborhood. And they didn’t go up there empty-handed – they tied red balloons to the parapet, they lit paper lanterns, and they popped champagne. From their perch, they yelled poems and proclamations into the night, declaring Greenwich Village a free and independent republic. For that night, at least, they reclaimed their neighborhood. The next day, the papers called them “the Arch Conspirators.”

A hundred years later, many New Yorkers and Americans are feeling a similar disillusionment and alienation. Many are puzzling at the strange atmosphere creeping into the culture, and wondering how to mobilize and register their dissent. Here at GVSHP, we like to follow history’s lead, so last night we honored the Arch Conspirators with a centennial celebration we hope they’d be proud of.

l. to r. – Moist Paula and John Speck entertained with live music; A proud lantern designer; Elisia Guerena reads a poem by Amiri Baraka.

Village favorites like Once Upon a Tart, Veselka and Porto Rico served delicious fare to happy attendees. And purveyors Brooklyn Mate and Kings County Distillery offered up tastings of their innovative drinks.

And attendees created their own conspirator’s lanterns! Encouraged to decorate with personalized messages of hope, love, and community, attendees turned their lanterns into miniature beacons of light. Mother Nature intervened in our original plans to display these lanterns at the Washington Square Arch, so we improvised inside. From high atop Judson’s balconey, Mickey Theis sang Woodie Guthrie as attendees came forward to gather their lanterns at the front of the room. It was a quiet moment of reflection, and a fitting way to honor our daring Conspirators of yore. 

Take a look at all the pictures from last night – and check back soon for some great video of the festivities. If you have your own pictures of the night, thanks post them on Facebook or Instagram and tag them #archconspirators so we can all share in the inspiration and celebration.

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Chelsea Dowell