Like most Greenwich Village artists on tight budgets during the Great Depression, Vincent La Gambina patronized the bohemian restaurants clustered around Sheridan Square. Offering cheap nourishment, easy credit, and congenial company, these unpretentious eateries also functioned as neighborhood social clubs. "For the price of a cup of coffee and a roll, one could sit for hours and hear everything from poetry to politics discussed over the course of an evening," La Gambina recalled. "Unemployed painters, writers, actors, and teachers gravitated there for warmth, friendship, and a bit of fun."1
Once a relatively tranquil Village crossroads, Sheridan Square -the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West 4th Street -evolved into a bustling tourist hub after its connection to the IRT subway system in 1917 -1918. Popular periodicals promoted Sheridan Square as the nerve center of the "New Bohemia," contributing to the area's invasion by outsiders. National magazines like Vanity Fair, McCall's, and the Ladies' Home Journal carried feature articles about the colorful species of "bird stick varnishers, budding Bolsheviks, and smock designers" who ran tea rooms and trinket shops in the vicinity.2 The extension of Seventh Avenue South below 11th Street after World War I also increased traffic volume through the square. In the bloom of this publicity, the neighborhood's prewar identity as the unhurried preserve of local artists and left-wing radicals surrendered to that of a parade ground thronged by sightseers pursuing the offbeat. The cozy vest-pocket cafe, long a trademark of Sheridan Square dining, succumbed to the fast-food canteen with enamel-topped tables, electric lights, and a clattering, impersonal service counter.
La Gambina's painting documents the interior of the Life Cafeteria, one of the square's busiest establishments, catering to a transient as well as neighborhood clientele. Built in the late 1920s at the junction of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue, it stood a short walk away from Washington Square, where La Gambina operated an art school in the early 1940s. Dominating the foreground is a trio of stylishly dressed women, one preoccupied by an unseen subject to the right, another powdering her cheek as she reads, and the third peering over her companion's shoulder to share the contents of her book. The confidence with which they occupy their table, bearing evidence of meals already consumed, suggests the women's status as regular patrons. In the background, several solitary customers ponder the cafeteria's fare or carry trays into the dining hall. The glint of stainless-steel coffee urns and food counter equipment provides a cool contrast to the muted warmth of La Gambina's palette.
Of the thousand or more self-service restaurants opened in Manhattan during the 1920s, those in Greenwich Village managed to preserve some of the avant-garde ambience that patrons expected to encounter in New York's Latin Quarter.3 Art exhibitions, jazz recitals, and poetry readings were among the attractions that contributed to their bohemian flavor. The Life Cafeteria conformed to local pattern. Although uptown shoppers and curious suburbanites frequented it by day, a more exotic clientele assembled at its tables after dark, including male prostitutes and others from the Village demimonde. "In the evenings," observed The WPA Guide to New York City (1939), "the more conventional occupy tables in one section of the room and watch the 'show' of eccentrics on the other side."4 When the restaurant's management hired police to patrol its restrooms and pressure patrons into vacating their seats once meals were consumed, the Life Cafeteria -tagged "Arrestaurant" by Village writer Maxwell Bodenheim5 -lost the local trade necessary to stay in business. After the restaurant closed, the building was subdivided into stores that sold everything from baloney to books.
La Gambina, an avid observer of the Village scene, often dropped by the Life Cafeteria to meet friends and survey its notorious clientele. Born in Sicily in 1909, the artist had immigrated to New York in 1920. He was orphaned shortly after his arrival and turned to painting as a means of support. Initially he sought training at the Da Vinci Art School in Manhattan and later earned scholarships to the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. In the 1930s he participated in the Depression-bred easel- and mural-painting programs of the Works Progress Administration and subsequently opened his own teaching facility, the Washington Square Art School, which folded when he enlisted for duty in the armed forces during World War II. As a resident of Greenwich Village during its heyday of intellectual and social ferment, La Gambina found a rich source of inspiration in the district's theatrical street life, which he recorded in a succession of canvases between the mid-1930s and 1960. Loose, vigorous brushwork and bold chiaroscuro typify these cityscapes, as do strong draftsmanship and the interplay of brilliant color against a more sober-keyed palette.
1 Letter from the artist to curator Jan Ramirez, January 28, 1988, Museum Archives.
2 See "The New Heart of Bohemia -Sheridan Square," Vanity Fair (January 1918); Martha Grossman, "America's Bohemia," McCall's (July 1917); Corinne Low, "The Village in a City," Ladies Home Journal (March 1920).
3 For a general history of the advent of cafeterias in New York City, see Jan and Michael Stem, "Cafeteria," New Yorker (August 1, 1988): 37 -54. In addition to the Life Cafeteria, Hubert's and Stewart's were popular Village self-service restaurants of that period.
4 "Sheridan Square," in The WPA Guide to New York City (1939; reprint, New York: Pantheon, 1982), p. 141.
5 Maxwell Bodenheim, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1954), p. 231. Commenting on the conflict between owners and eaters that led to the cafeteria's demise, Bodenheim wrote: "According to the proprietors of 'Life,' the cafeteria was a business venture and not a philanthropic experiment. They had established a restaurant, not a public meeting place for true Villagers to weave endless carpets of conversation, embroidered with strange designs from Sappho, Buddha, Oscar Wilde, Tolstoy, and the Marquis de Sade" (p. 231).
Museum of the City of New York