What do Sid Vicious, Bella Abzug, Auntie Mame, John and Yoko, and the widow of the mysteriously disappeared Judge Crater have in common?
Sounds like the start of a bad joke. In fact, it’s a roster of some of the celebrated residents of Bank Street, a small slice of the West Village that in many ways embodies the intimacy and rich sense of history that often define New York’s short thoroughfares.
Probably few people are better placed to tell its story than Donna Florio. Call her the bard of Bank Street. A onetime child opera singer whose career includes writing television scripts and travel articles, she lives in the century-old walk-up (elegant brownstone facade, lowly tenement layout) of No. 63, near West Fourth Street. Her parents moved there in 1955, just months before her birth, and except for interludes abroad she has spent her entire life at that address, which for a time was also home to her grandmother.
A woman with a deep curiosity — some might say nosiness — about other people’s lives, Ms. Florio has been interviewing her colorful neighbors for two decades. Her book-length history of the street and its people, a chatty ramble exploring the back story of an often rough and raffish part of town, is making the rounds of literary agents. In the process of completing the manuscript, she has been thinking a great deal about New York’s street life and what makes certain blocks especially vibrant.
“I want people to understand what it was like to grow up here,” said Ms. Florio, a rail-thin nonstop talker who is so moved by some of her neighbors’ stories that she often tears up as she recounts them. “The street took me in, opened doors and taught me about life. It’s really the story of New York, the story of America. You talk to your neighbors, and you realize that everyone has something to say. That helps you connect.”
Bank Street, a six-block stretch that runs from Greenwich Avenue west to the Hudson River, is lined with brownstones and red brick townhouses. In the early 20th century, dockworkers and prostitutes populated its western edge. The mid-20th century brought muggings and later, the scourge of AIDS. During Ms. Florio’s childhood, the street could be tough and dangerous, but it was always welcoming, largely because the residents knew and watched out for one another.
“Bank Street is the quintessential Jane Jacobs Greenwich Village block, the quintessential urban street,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, the author of “The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs” (Nation Books, 2010). “When Jane wrote, she used her nearby block, Hudson, as a window into the rhythm of an urban street, a street representing multiple income levels, professions and generations. This sort of street made it easy to be friendly with your neighbors.
“And she wasn’t talking just about Greenwich Village,” Ms. Gratz said. “She was talking about the sort of urban street that has been bulldozed out of existence in many New York neighborhoods.”
Many New York streets are beloved by their residents and have rich pasts. But few have been home to such a broad assortment of boldface names that thread themselves so intensely through the city’s social, economic, cultural and political history. To stroll along Bank Street with Ms. Florio is to receive a whirlwind history of a block where she is such a familiar face, every third person she passes waves a greeting.
Probably the most dramatic event on Bank Street took place on her own doorstep. Ms. Florio was living in her grandmother’s ground-floor apartment, and Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols bassist, had moved into a girlfriend’s apartment across the hall. The morning of Feb. 2, 1979, as Ms. Florio was leaving the building, she was greeted with exploding flashbulbs and reporters shoving microphones in her face. The singer had died of a heroin overdose after a party in the girlfriend’s apartment the previous night. He had just been released on bail in the stabbing murder of another girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, and reporters were demanding to know if Ms. Florio had been at the party. She hadn’t, but her reaction can be seen on YouTube.
The runner-up for Bank Street drama might be the events that unfolded in No. 72, where Marion Tanner, the real-life Auntie Mame, presided over a townhouse outfitted with a grand curving staircase and crystal chandeliers coated with grime. Ms. Tanner, the aunt of the author Patrick Dennis, who immortalized his eccentric relative in a 1955 best-seller that became a Broadway hit and a movie, was short and wrinkled, with missing teeth and thinning gray hair tucked into a bun. As a girl, Ms. Florio used to hang out in her building as visitors, many of whom had seen better days, streamed in and out.
She especially remembers the day Ms. Tanner unearthed a trunk from the basement and pulled out a tiara, a feathered fan, and an assortment of silk and satin dresses. “Darling, you look très, très chic,” she announced as she draped the finery around her young visitor. Ms. Florio still wears the exotic topaz brooch that Ms. Tanner gave her mother.
Some famous Bank Streeters long predated Ms. Florio, among them Stella Crater, widow of the judge who stepped into a cab one night in 1930 and was never heard from again, and the writers Willa Cather and John Dos Passos.
Other more recent residents were fixtures of her early years, among them John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who lived at No. 105 in the early 70s. Ms. Florio will never forget the day she was watering the flower boxes on the ledge of her front window when her hand slipped and water cascaded on two familiar-looking figures below.
“Yoko scowled,” Ms. Florio said. “But John just smiled, shook the water off his hair and said, ‘No worries.’ ”
Bella Abzug, the feisty congresswoman nicknamed “Battling Bella,” was another unforgettable Bank Streeter. “She used to have public shouting matches with my father,” Ms. Florio said. “Waving to her felt like waving to a tigress.”
Memorable institutions also dotted the street: the Waverly Inn, bought and turned chic in 2006 by Graydon Carter; the Bank Street College of Education, which ultimately decamped uptown; and HB Studio, where the likes of Pacino and De Niro honed their craft.
The Florio family had their own tales to tell. Ms. Florio’s parents worked for the Amato Opera Company on Bleecker Street, and their daughter was 3 when she made her debut as Butterfly’s love child in the Amato’s “Madama Butterfly.” She went on to sing in the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, then worked as a television producer and a special-education teacher until she stopped teaching three years ago to focus on her book.
In the 1980s, when her parents left the city, Ms. Florio moved to their old second-floor apartment, which still has the original pine window trim. “If the original rent was over $100, I’d be surprised,” said Ms. Florio, who lives there with her husband, a doctor, and now pays less than $850. Nearby apartments that are listed for sale go for upward of $1 million.
“I can close my eyes and hear the old sounds,” Ms. Florio said. “The coal being thrown down the chute for the radiators. The ragman on the street, calling out so we’d throw down old clothes.”
“I’ve come to realize that this street of mine holds the stories of America,” she added. “Every street in America could be a Bank Street in its own way.”
But she has no desire to turn back the clock.
“Everyone makes their own Bank Street,” Ms. Florio said, stopping to wave to the 20-somethings who live in her building and operate a taco stand at Chelsea Market. “I don’t want it to be 1965 again.”
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