Neighborhood Tour: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade Route
"I still remember their blood-curdling screams on my way to piano lessons when I was a little girl," says Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli, recalling the inmates who used to howl from the windows of the Women's House of Detention at Sixth Avenue and West 9th Street.
Although the House of Detention was gone by the late '70s and replaced with the bucolic Jefferson Market Garden, Adelaide’s vivid memory was a fitting addition to Bisnow’s recent tour of the Village Halloween Parade route, which runs along Sixth Avenue from Spring Street to Union Square.
Next door, at 425 Sixth Ave, is the Jefferson Market Library, formerly the Jefferson Market Courthouse, which has its own mysterious past, says New York Historical Tours director Kevin Draper. Kevin led us down a narrow winding staircase to the library’s brick-arched basement, which was used as a holding cell for prisoners preparing to meet their fate, either in jail or at trial.
Designed by Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux, the Victorian Gothic style Jefferson Market building was completed in 1877 and used as a courthouse until 1945, after which several city agencies inhabited it until the '50s, when it was abandoned. The historic structure was slated for the wrecking ball until local residents, including poet E.E. Cummings, saved the building. It was renovated and reopened as a library in 1967.
The Village Halloween Parade is such a treasured neighborhood institution, Adelaide says, that even the library gets into the spirit by hanging spooky decorations from its clock tower, including a puppet spider that crawls along the side of the building.
Kevin says a puppeteer and mask-maker named Ralph Lee is responsible for the Village Halloween Parade's humble beginnings. In 1974, he led his kids and some family and friends around the neighborhood, donning elaborate masks and trick-or-treating and playing with his puppet creations. In 1975, Theater for New York got involved and helped to attract interest. The third year, Ralph made it a nonprofit.
Adelaide, a Greenwich Village native and current resident, has attended Village Halloween Parade since childhood and passed the tradition to her children. Over the years, she’s watched the parade grow to the current 60,000 participants and 2 million spectators, making it “the largest Halloween parade in the world, and one of the only major nighttime parades in the United States," Kevin said.
Today, Sixth Avenue is a major north-south thoroughfare bathed in sunlight, but Kevin says it wasn’t always that way. The unsightly IRT Sixth Avenue Line elevated railway cast a shadow on Sixth Avenue until businesses and property owners successfully petitioned the city to shut down the El in the late 1930s.
Mayor La Guardia signed a bill in the '40s renaming the corridor Avenue of the Americas in an effort to rebrand it. In anticipation of the opening of the United Nations, he wanted to encourage countries to build consulates on the avenue, Kevin said.
The plan didn't work out exactly as expected. The only evidence of the mayor’s effort is a few medallions representing various countries still hanging from lampposts. However, a general commercial boom did take place, and the main passageway of The Village began to take shape.
Replacing the El with the underground Sixth Avenue subway line has enabled neighborhood retailers to thrive, Adelaide said. In recent years, real estate firms like Stonehenge—at 10 Downing St—invested in multifamily properties and converted ground-floor residential rentals into retail and restaurant spaces that are adding to the vibrancy of the neighborhood. Asking retail rents along Sixth Avenue average around $220/SF, while asking rents on the popular retail strip along Bleecker Street just off Sixth average close to $500/SF.
Adelaide tells Bisnow that many of the buildings in the area are still owned by families who came to New York decades earlier to start a new life and open small businesses. At that time, the property was worth a fraction of what it is now.
The result is a misconception that often accompanies developing neighborhoods. While concern has grown for larger retailers and eateries replacing mom-and-pop establishments, Adelaide tells us that many small business owners own their retail spaces, and are either choosing to rent to high-paying tenants or selling their buildings at a profit.
Sixth Avenue is punctuated with parks that make the Village enticing to pedestrians, allowing them to leisurely stroll, shop and people watch, Kevin says. One coveted outdoor space is Father Demo Square at Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, which was named after the former pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii. The church was rebuilt across the street from the park and has a school that Adelaide and her children attended.
Adelaide grew up around the corner from the church on Macdougal Street, a few doors down from the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, a group of townhouses that share an interior courtyard as well as a legacy of very famous residents, including Bob Dylan, Richard Gere and Anna Wintour.