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The Parsonage

An unprepossessing townhouse in the East Village has been central to a series of distinctive events in New York City history.

The spirit life of old urban buildings works like an inversion of the transmigration of souls. A spectral essence is not the constant, as it is with a soul that drifts out of one body to be reincarnated in another. The constant is the containing vessel, the structure on the city street, and the spirit of the place is what changes over time.

Trendy storefronts shutter when the trends pass. The fabric-and-pattern shop where your grandmother got the material to sew her parlor curtains became the hi-fi store where your mom bought the stereo she took to college, and that was converted to a video outlet before the tattoo salon moved in. The rental apartments on the residential floors above, where two generations in a family could once live together, were subdivided into studios for young singles, then sold as condos. Old buildings stand, if they’re not razed for redevelopment, while their functions come and go, and the character of their repurposing provides a connection to the world changing around them — a kind of transient newness that, in its transience, is perpetually renewable.

This cycle of ever-altering uses within a fixed architectural framework — and with it, ever-shifting meanings and associations, as well as fluctuating use value — is a commonplace in cities everywhere, but embodied to an uncommon degree in a singular location in the east half of Greenwich Village in New York City. A four-story townhouse at 64 East 7th Street has the distinction of being central to an unlikely string of important moments in New York history. From the first wave of immigration from Europe to lower Manhattan, through the rise of the Beats and avant-garde performance art in the mid 20th century, to the gentrification of recent years, the same building on East 7th Street has encapsulated one era after another after another.