Many first-time visitors to The Village are surprised by how large and diverse this huge chunk of the city is. The Village, bounded by 14th Street to the north, Houston Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the east and the Hudson River to the west, comprises many different communities, faces and lives.
Washington Square Park (end of Fifth Avenue, bounded by Waverly Place and West Fourth Street) has been the heart of anti-establishment life for decades, perhaps reaching its zenith in the sixties, when many a teen chose to tune-in, turn-on and drop-out. Serving as the focal point for New York University, the buildings and dorms of which circle the park on all sides, Washington Square is still the converging point of alternative culture: Gen-X slackers, pierced and tattooed runaways, drug dealers, skateboarders, students and performers -- they're all here, with the notable exception of gays, who steer clear of the odious action in favor of the West Village.
The park's beautiful white arch, constructed in 1892 to commemorate Washington's inauguration here a century before, presides over a lively, central fountain, a favorite meeting place for Villagers. Be sure to notice Washington Square North's rows of beautifully preserved townhomes, dating back to the 1860s and immortalized by such writers as Henry James, Louisa May Alcott and William Dean Howells.
The streets immediately below the park are full of cafes, T-shirt shops, bars and restaurants, all catering more or less to straight tourists and the NYU crowd. Bleecker Street, running through the Village at a northwestern angle, is the Village's most vibrant street, and from end to end, best captures the many communities that make up the neighborhood.
The best part of Bleecker begins west of Sixth Avenue and continues to Seventh Avenue, where it's full of Italian pastry cafes, pizza joints, (the famous John's Pizza), interesting jewelry shops, Catholic churches with basement bingo, and some decent restaurants.
Don't miss a visit to the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center (208 W. 13th St; 212/620-7310), the biggest of its kind in the country, back to its original housing in a newly renovated former public school on 13thfrom its temporary digs on Little 12Street. This is your best resource in the city as a gay tourist, hands down. You'll find an infinite number of leaflets and info on gay life in the city.
The gay West Village is centered around Sheridan Square and Christopher Street (beginning at Sheridan Square and running west) the East Coast's Castro, and perhaps the first gay ghetto in the country. And like the Castro, AIDS forever altered the street's jubilant decadence of the `70s and early `80s. Now the crowd in Christopher Street's bars and shops tends to be older, male, lower-income and ethnic, as compared to its relatively young, middle class white population of decades'; past.
West of Seventh Avenue and spread throughout the quiet, tree-lined streets of brownstones and townhomes are dozens of the city's best (and fairly reasonable) restaurants, bookstores, and unusual shopping. Such streets as Bedford, West Fourth, Perry or Charles make for the city's best strolls, as the area is one of the oldest and most historically significant in the city. If you can find it, Chumley's (86 Bedford St, at Barrow; 212/675-4449; $9-18), good for an afternoon pint, is an old speakeasy that's still unmarked by any signage -- one has to duck through a courtyard doorway to find it. Hudson Street, running north-south from Houston to 14th Street, is the Village's westernmost main artery, and popular lesbian locale. You'll spot many a cute guy or gal walking their terrier along Hudson, also lined with some good, inexpensive restaurants, shops and more cafes.