Scrolling through Off the Grid or any other collection of New York history, we’ve all become familiar with the legendary characters of the Village – Dylan, Kerouac, Hendrix, Duchamp, and the countless figures who have become synonymous with the neighborhood. Alongside them were incredible female creators who, although undoubtedly well-known, are sometimes forgotten. Today we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month with a spotlight on three more women of the Village who deserve to be remembered and celebrated for their amazing work.
In an interview about her documentary “Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation”, director Laura Archibald comments that “Judy [Collins] was around the Village since the beginning,” and Collins’ own memoir proves this to be an understatement. Born in Seattle, WA and raised in Denver, CO, she made her way to New York in the early 1960s and became a key player in the Village folk scene, arriving “just about five minutes before it burst into its mythic vibrancy.” Mingling with the other icons in the place-to-be spots around town – Gerde’s Folk City, the Village Vanguard, Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, the Gaslight Café – Collins was there, performing and supporting the careers of her fellow songwriters. Collins began her career with beautiful covers of hits written by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and even earlier folk songwriters, releasing her first album in 1961 (at age 22) but only achieving true commercial success in 1967 with Wildflowers.
Although she has lived on Central Park West for decades now, interviews and anecdotes tell us that she lived for a time on Hudson Street, “not far from the White Horse Tavern,” with her then-lover, guitarist Walter Raim. Sadly, it’s been difficult to find out precisely where this apartment was located, but it’s certainly easy (and fun) to picture her living right in the middle of the action, steps away from all the bustling folk venues of the Village.
Sure, it’s nearly impossible to talk about Yoko Ono without mentioning her unbelievably famous late husband, but this avant-garde artist produced fascinating work that merits attention all on its own. Primarily associated with the Fluxus movement, Ono joined in the 1960s pursuit of creating art that played with the concept of art itself. Her works incorporated music, performance, humor, and audience instruction and participation, rejecting the definitions and boundaries that had traditionally surrounded art. I personally remember seeing a work of hers called A Box of Smile at the New York Public Library, consisting of an engraved plastic box with a mirror inside. The viewer must stand in front of the box, focusing the mirror on his/her smiling mouth, to match the title of the piece. I loved this introduction to Ono’s cheeky, unusual work. Her practice is conceptual, feminist, experimental, and incredibly hard to find in museums or galleries. As one Washington Post writer accurately put it, “I have encountered Ono’s work only twice in the flesh.”
We, of course, know that John and Yoko are most associated with the Dakota on Central Park West, where Ono still lives to this day. It’s not surprising, though, that the Japanese-born artist and the rockstar initially made their home downtown, living at 105 Bank Street, an 1846 rowhouse they rented from Joe Butler of the Lovin’ Spoonful from 1971-72. Toward the beginning of her career, Ono lived at 112 Chambers Street in Tribeca, in a loft where she hosted a number of Fluxus happenings that were undoubtedly attended by other artists of the Village, like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. Ono also owned a condo at 49 Downing Street, which she bought from her son Sean in 1995 (but continued to live at the Dakota) and sold in 2014.
It goes without saying that one of the elements that truly defines New York, and particularly downtown Manhattan, is fashion. Even today, one-of-a-kind outfits and emerging trends can be found everywhere on the streets of the Village. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, Andrea Aranow was directly contributing to this with her wild leather and reptile-skin designs. Aranow opened her boutique, Dakota Transit, in 1968 at 333 East 9th Street – now occupied by Spark Pretty – where she sold amazing patchwork garments, combining leather, lizard, snakeskin, feathers, and even flowers. Her show-stopping designs quickly caught the eye of none other than Jimi Hendrix, for whom Aranow designed full snakeskin ensembles (and from whom Aranow received her first-ever $100 bill). She also created pieces for Miles Davis, a longtime friend of hers, and was later approached by designer Alexander McQueen to learn about her technical expertise with a wide array of textiles.
Aranow moved around extensively, closing her shop in 1973 and traveling all over the world to work on her now over-40,000 piece textile collection. While her time in the neighborhood was relatively short, her far-out designs clearly made it onto the big stage in no time and helped set the style of the 1970s East Village.
In this neighborhood forever associated with talent, progress, and creativity, the marks of history-making women can be found around every corner. This month (but also, every other month), let’s celebrate these women who made strides of all sizes to art, music, and the incredible culture of the Village!