New York City is a place where shops and restaurants come and go. But in Greenwich Village, the former bohemian enclave that has never lost its mythological aura as a neighborhood of freedom and beauty (tourists now line up to gawk at the Stonewall Inn the same way they walk in the Beatles’ footsteps across Abbey Road), the last decade has given rise to a ritual that’s become depressing in its familiarity. A local eating establishment — a diner, a trattoria — that’s been there for years, and that you prize in every way (the food, the atmosphere, the people who work there), seems to be thriving. Then you’re meeting someone there for dinner, and…poof! It’s gone. Shuttered. Maybe it moved to a different part of town, but in most cases it’s gone forever.
Why? Even beloved restaurants have to play by the rules of capitalism, but these places have done that; they were popular and profitable. Until, that is, the rent the proprietors were paying suddenly got jacked up by 50 percent. Overnight, the place becomes unsustainable, and it closes. Then it sits as an empty storefront, essentially abandoned, for months or even years, until the space is taken over by a bank, a chain drugstore, a Starbucks, or maybe a new restaurant, with high-end backing, that no one ends up loving, and a year later it closes down, too. This syndrome, repeated countless times (with restaurants, music stores, and other cherished haunts), has neutered the once resonant and idiosyncratic culture of Greenwich Village. It’s been like watching an eroding beach — you can’t see it happening, but one day you come upon that diminished sand dune, and the erosion is all too visible.
Whether or not this matters is a question that relates to whether you think a place like the Village, which used to be an epicenter of the United States, still holds sway. But for anyone who thinks it does, Roger Paradiso’s documentary “The Lost Village” offers itself up as a furious piece of cultural history. It’s about the gentrification — and generifying — of the Village, and about something larger: the takeover or urban spaces by corporate powers, the loss of the DIY flavor of mom-and-pop stores, and what all of this means for everyone.
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Some of what the film has to say on these subjects is trenchant in a cranky, die-hard-Village-regular-ranting-on-a-barstool way. Market forces are on the march in our society, and Paradiso offers a top-down analysis of what’s happened to the Village that’s more convincing than not. The film gets very macro, full of thoughts on the rise of the global moneyed elite, all of which is relevant. (They’re the people buying insanely upscale co-ops in the new Greenwich Village.)
Yet “The Lost Village” is a documentary you seek out not just because you want to know what’s happening to the Village from the top down, but from the ground up. And on that score, the movie is oddly perfunctory. It is, or should have been, an elegy for something, but the film doesn’t do the loving and detailed historical work of showing us what it’s an elegy for. It’s too busy shoving Marxist dirt on the West Village’s grave.
“The Lost Village” devotes a good half of its 89-minute running time to the real-estate depredations of New York University, and it’s here that the movie is onto something incendiary that nevertheless seems, at many points, to be driven by an overly personalized agenda. NYU, situated in between the East and West Village, has been gobbling up property for a long time, and the film indicts the university for what it sees as its omnivorous and exploitative greed. Tuition is so high, and New York rents are so expensive, that a number of students, including a few whom Paradiso interviews, have gone to work in the sex industry, or they’ve marketed themselves on websites as “sugar babies,” to meet their monthly expenses. This is a creepy and appalling situation, and it relates to fundamental ways that the cost of higher education has spiraled out of control. Student debt is now a ball-and-chain that crushes people for decades.
Yet this, of course, is a national problem. NYU, like many powerful and prestigious universities, has become a ruthless corporation, but when it comes to demonstrating how that fact has affected the character of Greenwich Village, Paradiso simply shows us some modern “ugly” buildings the university has put up, and he interviews the NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller — outspoken in his criticisms — standing before a sports center that’s about to be torn down to make room for more faculty housing.
NYU and its voracious expansion is a worthy subject for a documentary, but too often it feels like a different documentary from the one Paradiso is making. Yes, NYU is powerful enough to count as a monolithic land baron, but the issue of what’s happened to Greenwich Village is a vastly different story. It has to do with independent landlords and the way the city has enabled them; the gradual entropy of outsider culture; the migration of gay culture from the Village to Chelsea; and other factors. Some of this is mentioned in the film, but that’s the problem — it’s just mentioned. It’s never explored.
Paradiso interviews the owners of Tea & Sympathy, a cozy nook of British tea-time cuisine who explain how their rent skyrocketed (they’re still there, however). He also talks to Jim Drougas, the proprietor of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, who has long silky white hair, a face at once weathered and boyish, and the becalmed manner of someone who finds a Zen satisfaction in the act of sitting in his cramped store selling art books and comics and studies of Bob Dylan. He’s one of the last of the quintessential Village characters, yet we learn next to nothing about how he keeps his business going. There’s not enough in “The Lost Village” about the Village that’s disappearing — about what it meant to people, and maybe still means, and how it rippled out to the larger society.
The movie takes note of the 2010 closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, the fabled institution — so crucial during the AIDS crisis — that was converted into luxury condos. And maybe it’s a good thing that it spares us a nostalgic rundown of the Village’s greatest hits (Dylan Thomas! The Beats! The Kingston Trio! Bob Dylan! Lenny Bruce! The Stonewall riots! Frank Serpico!). But couldn’t it have probed beneath the clichés to commemorate the Village with a devotion enriched by hindsight? Paradiso interviews Judith Malina, one of the co-founders of the Living Theatre (she died in 2015), who grouses about having to move to New Jersey and sounds utterly bitter about where she landed. I guess that’s honest, but it would have been nice to hear her testify to what made the Village a transcendent place to be, for her and others. “The Lost Village” has some insight, but it’s too bitter to recall its subject with anything but regret. The spirit of the Village gets lost in this movie too.