On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event that led to the start of World War I. While the Archduke himself bears few of any ties to the Village, WWI had a significant impact on the social and cultural life of the neighborhood and beyond. The atrocities of WWI marked an end to the restrictive and repressive culture of the Victorian Era; in the Village, a place that had always been known for its countercultural attitude and vie bohème, the war further transformed the neighborhood, aligning the political values of the residents even further towards the left and instilling a greater sense of social rebellion. Below, are some examples of events and phenomena that responded to and resulted from the advent of the First World War.
The Masses was a graphically innovative magazine of socialist politics published monthly in the United States from 1911 until 1917. The magazine published reportage, fiction, poetry and art by the leading radicals of the time and the neighborhood, including figures such as Max Eastman, Dorothy Day, and Floyd Dell (the latter a one-time paramour of Edna St. Vincent Millay). To some extent, The Masses was defined by its association with the artistic culture of the time. Eastman spoke of the publication as a product of the new Greenwich Village that began to emerge at this time:
The birth of The Masses coincided with the birth of ‘Greenwich Village’ as a self-conscious entity, an American Bohemia or gipsy-minded Latin Quarter, but its relations with that entity were not simple.”
After Eastman assumed leadership in 1914, The Masses took on a decidedly anti-war stance, railing against the atrocities of World War I, which was at the time taking hold in Europe. Following the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917, The Masses was placed on trial, considered treasonous material meant to obstruct conscription into WWI. In 1918, after two trials (which were more about the issue of freedom of the press than what The Masses was actually promoting), the publication was officially disbanded. Though the First World War saw an end to this radical publication, its legacy lived on long after its demise, and shows how the Village always stood at the forefront of progressive and leftist thought, even in the most uncertain of climates.
The Arch Conspirators
On January 23, 1917, poet Gertrude Drick, painters John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, and actors Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and Charles Ellis climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch. Drick read a declaration of independence for the “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square” with the intent of having a neighborhood free from mainstream convention. The individuals involved in this event became known as the “Arch Conspirators,” and became one of the defining Village moments of the neighborhood during the WWI era. From their perch, these Conspirators yelled poems and proclamations into the night; they tied red balloons to the parapet, they lit paper lanterns, and they popped champagne. Though the “conspiracy” only lasted one night, their independent spirits lived on for decades to come in the Village, helping to seer and inspire the neighborhood’s spirit of countercultural rebellion and avant-garde sensibilities, especially as America was entering the international conflict of World War I.
WWI had a liberating effect on social norms both inside and outside the Village. This period, known as the “Roaring ‘20’s,” saw Greenwich Village become a greater hub for social life and a more rebellious culture. During this time, many speakeasies opened and operated within the Village, a response to the ban on alcohol sale that came with the ratification of the 18th Amendment. Youth culture, which was also shaped largely by the atrocities of the war, was also starting to really take hold in the Village. The relatively cheap rent of the neighborhood afforded young people the opportunity to move away from their parents and women to live on their own. Speaking of women, the new woman of the post-war era, the Flapper, began to emerge, eschewing the traditional roles forced on women during the Victorian Era to pursue social and sexual freedom, as well as less confining fashion choices.
Though WWI and its aftermath saw profound social and cultural changes within the Village and beyond, it’s important to note that the post-war period is more marked by a strong push for social rebellion as opposed to reform. If WWI was the great liberator for social attitudes on the grand scale, the Village was the stage where these new attitudes first played out, becoming the community of change as the world around it was only starting to do so.