The New York City of Inside Llewyn Davis is far from the gentrified real estate haven we know today. Gone are the multimillion-dollar condominiums and chain restaurants, instead replaced with smoky bars, bohemian enclaves and a burgeoning downtown folk scene.
The film follows an aspiring singer––the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)––in 1961 as he looks to climb the ranks of the music business. Having already achieved a minor amount of success with an earlier group, he’s now gone solo, singing standard tunes and a few of his own in the hopes of getting noticed by a record company, a promoter, random strangers––anyone who’s willing to pay attention.
The main setting of Llewyn Davis is Greenwich Village, a neighborhood bursting with creativity, filled with poor artists singing tales of loneliness and heartbreak in small clubs and coffee shops along MacDougal street. On-screen, these locations have been lovingly re-created by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, turning the film into a bittersweet account of 1960s NYC.
Let’s take a look back at a few of these spots––both in the Village and in outer boroughs––along with their history, their current state, and where they fit in the story of Inside Llewyn Davis, which hits theaters in limited release this Friday.
THE GASLIGHT CAFÉ
History: If you were a scruffy folk singer looking to make a name in 1960s New York, you would go to one of two places: Cafe Wha? or the Gaslight Cafe. Located at 116 MacDougal Street, the small basement music venue (the place allegedly fit about 110 patrons) was open for 13 years (1958-1971) and hosted an array of soon-to-be-famous musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Van Ronk (the latter of which provided the real-life inspiration for Llewyn Davis).
Where It Fits in the Film: The Gaslight essentially acts as the film’s home base, a place where Llewyn performs his songs, argues with friends, heckles other singers and, eventually, gets punched in the face (though that last one technically happens in the alley next to the Gaslight).
The Gaslight Today: The location on MacDougal Street has since become a basement dive bar known simply as 116, which serves a drink called “The Gaslight,” made of “house-infused chipotle pepper tequila, Prunier Liqueur d'Orange, freshly squeezed lime juice and honey.”
History: Opened in 1927 by owner Domenico Parisi (a man who, years earlier, introduced the cappuccino to America), Caffe Reggio, with its beautiful Italian Renaissance-era artwork and its espresso machine that dates back to 1902, soon became a staple in the Village. In addition to Llewyn Davis, the cafe was used as a backdrop in films including The Godfather: Part II and the original Shaft.
Where It Fits in the Film: The Reggio serves as a meeting place for Llewyn and Jean Berkley. While fighting with Jean, a woman he recently had an affair with, Llewyn spots his friends’ cat running down the street––the one he accidentally lost while staying at their apartment several nights earlier.
Caffe Reggio Today: It’s still there, in all its rustic Italian glory. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and have a cup of coffee.
History: The street is named after Alexander MacDougal, a Revolutionary War military leader. The strip began to gain prominence once the beat generation moved into the neighborhood, with residents using it as an inspiration for songs, poems and other works of art.
Where It Fits in the Film: The address of both Caffe Reggio and the Gaslight, MacDougal Street is the main setting for Llewyn’s adventures in the Village. Specifically, this is where he encounters Al Cody (Adam Driver), a fellow folk singer who he records with on the song "Please Mr. Kennedy."
MacDougal Street Today: Today’s street is adorned with a bit more neon, however the tree-lined block still has its fair share of idiosyncrasies––chess shops, record stores, boutiques, etc. If you look hard enough, there are a few scant traces from the era of Llewyn Davis.
WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK
History: Prior to becoming a park, the land was a burial ground. By 1827, it had been rechristened as Washington Square Park, named after America’s first president, George Washington. The most famous feature, the Washington Arch, was built between 1888-1890 and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Once the 1960s arrived, the Man had banned folk singers from performing in Washington Square, a move that eventually caused a riot.
Where It Fits in the Film: The park is the location of another intense encounter between Jean and Llewyn, with the famous arc seen in the backdrop. Here, Jean throws some nasty shade towards Llewyn, with a condom-related joke worth writing down for future reference.
Washington Square Park Today: Today, the park is still the centerpiece of the Village, doubling as New York University’s unofficial quad and a meeting place for downtown New Yorkers. On most days, it plays host to a litany of performers. The grounds recently underwent an enormous renovation, and now feature improved playgrounds, new lighting and additional trees.
History: Designed by Chicago architect Walter Ahlschlager, the Beacon opened for business in 1929. The idea for the venue came from Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, the man behind New York’s legendary Radio City Music Hall. (Roxy has good taste in venues.)
Where It Fits in the Film: The Beacon makes a brief appearance in the film when Davis, walking through New York’s Upper West Side, stops outside its doors.
Beacon Theatre Today: Over the last 80 years, the Beacon has hosted concerts, operas, speeches and stand-up specials. Thanks to its beautiful art deco design and terrific acoustics, it’s still considered one of New York City’s premiere concert venues.
History: Without delving too deeply into the New York City archives, Woodside was settled in the 18th century and has historically been known as a middle-class Irish-American neighborhood.
Where It Fits in the Film: Woodside is one of the film’s few outliers, where Llewyn Davis steps outside of the Greenwich Village bubble and enters “the real world.” In Queens, he visits his sister to see if there is any money left over from the sale of their parents’ house.
Woodside, Queens Today: The neighborhood is still home to working-class Irish families, though, like most of New York City, the area has become more diverse over the years.
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