This month’s West Village Original is author and WestView contributor Barbara Riddle, who was born in Wickersham Hospital on East 58th Street and grew up in the Village. The author of “The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke,” she is currently living on West 12th Street and completing her memoir, “Sex and Sinclair Lewis: Tales of a Greenwich Village Girlhood”.
For author Barbara Riddle, growing up in the bosom of Greenwich Village during the 1950’s is the stuff of fond memories. “What I remember is the total freedom we had,” she says. “We had no fears. My friends and I hung out in Washington Square Park every day. We’d talk, flirt with each other, ride bikes, and roller skate. We’d stay out late on summer nights. Back then, the Village was mostly Irish and Italian working class and crazy Bohemians, like my mother. She was a writer, raising me on her own, who always had very experimental tastes. She would take me to the 8th Street Playhouse to see foreign films, or to the Living Theater. She also had gay friends and interracial friends and I took for granted that that’s how everybody was.”
“My father was a weekend dad,” she continues. “He would take me to MOMA and the original Whitney, which back then was on West 8th Street opposite the Hotel Marlton. Lots of interesting people lived in that hotel. In fact, my mother and I wound up there several times when she couldn’t afford the rent and we got evicted from our latest apartment. My mother liked it because it was inexpensive and clean and there was always a clerk in the lobby who could babysit me. I didn’t mind it because I was still able to go to PS 41. Another time we lived at the Hotel Albert on University and 10th, as well as the Hotel Earl, now the Washington Square Hotel.”
According to Riddle, this itinerant upbringing is why she knows the Village so well. “In addition to hotels, we lived on Charles Street, Perry Street, and then one time on Bank Street in a townhouse. When I would walk my younger sibling to school in the morning, we would pass these huge barrels of cow heads discarded by the butchers in the Meatpacking District. It looked like Guernica in a barrel,” she says, laughing, “with the tongues sticking out and the eyeballs bulging.”
When she was 16, Riddle left New York to attend Reed College. “I thought science was fantastic,” she says. “But I was very conflicted because I also wanted to write. I did eventually get my PhD in Biochemistry, although I turned down a postdoctoral fellowship to Oxford and moved to London with my partner instead.” It turned out to be the right decision for her. “I kissed the ground every morning I woke up,” she confesses. “And I did publish a novel, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke. It’s about a girl working in a science lab, and a lot of it is autobiographical.” The experience was a catharsis for Riddle. Through the novel she was able to come to terms with her own father’s suicide when she was eighteen. “It was very liberating to come to the understanding that a young woman cannot give meaning to her father’s life,” she says. “You never get over something like that, but you can separate it from personal guilt.”
Riddle subsequently moved from London to San Francisco where she and her partner raised a daughter. “I never acclimated to San Francisco,” she admits. “My heart was always in New York and I came back to the Village full-time in 2002.” However, it was a very different neighborhood from the one she had left years before. “The biggest change is that it now takes a lot of money to live here,” she observes. “That means that people are under more pressure. You can see that they don’t have as much time to talk to each other or do unstructured things. I do lament the fact that people don’t seem to have time to enjoy what we have here.”
“Nevertheless,” she continues, “I still think the Village is one of the most livable neighborhoods in this city. In terms of physical changes, it doesn’t look that different. If I squint, it could be the same as it was forty years ago.” And writing for WestView has given back Riddle a sense of community. “I was so happy to connect with the paper for that reason. It’s the best of the old and the new. You have to move on, of course, and you can’t recreate the past. But a lot of the people at WestView are managing to live in the present while maintaining the old Village values and to me that’s a very successful combination.”