Greenwich Village is frequently pigeon-holed as a hotbed of counter-culture. Writers, artists, wandering bohemians…the list of alternative folks who roamed the area is endless.
Bob Dylan is even rumored to have hung out in a bar called the Kettle of Fish on Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place (that is far before it became a Green Bay Packer bar, read: the National Football League). But before the Beatniks sung out their poetry slams to the rhythm of snapping fingertips, and before Green Bay Packer fans raged in the city streets after their Superbowl XLV victory, there was a little red schoolhouse.
This little red schoolhouse, however, emerged in the likeness of the God that is Greenwich Village radicalism. It was founded in 1922 as a New York City Public school and was aptly named The Little Red School House. It was, and still is, at 196 Bleeker Street, right on the corner of Bleeker and Sixth Avenue.
In the 1920’s this “experimental school for children” emphasized progressive “experiential” learning and had flexible schedules. The school was limited to first graders only (unlike traditional little red school houses, where often grades kindergarten through twelve were mixed). Advocates raved about the benefits of tailoring their child’s education to his or her “spontaneous interests.” In short, advocates were enamored by the school’s non-traditional methods, and many parents stridently supported the type of education their children were receiving.
But those were the advocates.
In his book A Small Wonder historian Johnathan Zimmerman quotes a seething Italian mother who scorned the school’s methods: “We send our children to school for what we cannot give them ourselves, grammar and drill. We do not send our children to school for group activity; they get plenty of that in the street.” She goes on to note that only “Fifth Avenue” families thought this method of schooling was a good idea. Equating the school’s progressive style to the city streets probably quite accurately describes the atmosphere of the Village during this time. The streets of the Village were probably anything but traditional. Also, this Italian mother’s diatribe also points to the class conflict in the area. She clearly differentiates herself (clearly a more traditional woman) from the Fifth Avenue crowd who was, according to this woman’s standards, very liberal.
The Fifth Avenue crowd was also becoming very rich.
The WPA Guide to New York City notes that during various influxes of immigrants, the wealthier families continued to move uptown “along Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and other great arteries.” Simultaneously, the Irish and black populations from lower Manhattan continued to shift their communities North.
Eventually the Italians followed in the 1920s, and this particular mélange of ethnicities fully occupied this section of the Village – a section that the 1939 WPA Guide calls “backwater.” This outraged Italian mother represents the counter-counter-culture that also existed (and probably still does) in the Village. Not everyone in the Village was an American seeking alternative styles of living; some residents were immigrants who were looking for a compulsory, traditional lifestyle for their children so that they could be properly inculcated by mainstream America.
The school was eventually eliminated from the public school system by the Board of Education around 1932. It was closed because students were not performing up to the standards of the state. However, some well-to-do supporters (perhaps that same family on Fifth Avenue who was scorned by the Italian mom) paid to keep the school alive as a private institution.
The Little Red School House is still in tact, and it is still a school today. It is now called by a truncated acronym (LREI), which is supposed to stand for The Little Red School House and Elizabeth Irwin High School. The school still prides itself on its alternative style of teaching. Students are enrolled for fourteen years of pre-college learning instead of the traditional twelve. Its website boasts that one minute an observer may hear a high school class debating a piece of Congressional legislation, and the next minute he or she may catch a glimpse of students flinging objects across the courtyard using the medieval-esque catapults they designed. This is hugely divergent from the strict and compulsory Common Core Standards implemented by the Department of Education this year, which does not necessarily support the idea of a student following his or her “spontaneous interest.” It demands that all students must learn the same exact content at the same exact time. This standard is undoubtedly followed by all of the New York City public schools in Greenwich Village. The Italian mother of the Little Red School House past probably would have ardently upheld this new standard. However, the fact that LREI exists today shows that The Village may always be a place of radicalism and progressivism. While this may be true, historians and residents alike must also recognize that there will always be exceptions that undermine this notion.
And so, in brief conclusion: sometimes history is exciting because one learns how much the world has changed, but sometimes one learns that the world has not. The Village was and continues to be a culturally contested section of Manhattan because it embodies so many contradictory ideas and lifestyles.
 The WPA Guide to New York City. ed. Lou Gody, Chest D. Harvey, James Reed. Second Edition. New York: Pantheon Press, 1982, pp. 137.
Zimmerman, Johnathan. Small Wonder. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 112.
 Zimmerman 112.
 The WPA Guide to New York City 126.
 The WPA Guide to New York City 126.