Eleven Cornelia Street: Too Spanish for Spaniards?

Is this picturesque alley in Córdoba?  Or perhaps Granada? Maybe Seville?  Try Greenwich Village.  More precisely, 11 Cornelia Street, between 6th Avenue and Bleecker.

The Spanish-style makeover of this tenement’s façade and ground floor took place in 1928, in the midst of one of the periodic Hispanophile trends in American culture, and in the midst of an early wave of gentrification, when, according to Christopher Gray, the Village’s “stock of older, decaying houses became a center of reimagined quaintness.” The architect who oversaw the fanciful facelift of 11 Cornelia Street, James H. Galloway, rebaptized the building “Seville Studios,” and a 1928 ad for apartments in the building in the New York Times promised “Old World atmosphere, New World conveniences.”  Translation: if in 1910, all of the residents of the nameless tenement were African-American, by 1930, all of the residents of the Seville Studio would be white.  We know from Caroline Ware’s classic study, Greenwich Village, 1920 – 1930, that in these same years, just a few blocks away, towards the river, Spanish immigrants in a small enclave were being displaced by the same wave of housing “upgrades.”

Spain and Spanish motifs would often be evoked in US culture to conjure up images of Old World dignity and stately elegance; this same logic would lead to the common practice of naming movie palaces, and later, luxurious automobiles, after exotic Spanish monuments or cities, like Alhambra, Córdoba, or Seville.  The fact that this particular evocation of Spanish elegance in the service of gentrification actually coincided with the presence of significant numbers of real-life working class Spaniards struggling to find affordable housing in the West Village, is just one of many ironies of the history of “Spain” –the place and the idea– in New York.  We might say that, through its transformation into “SevilleStudios,” 11 Cornelia Street had become too Spanish for Spaniards.

(Quotation and historical information from Christopher Gray, New York Times, November 12, 2009, RE 5.  Photos by Juan Salas)

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