McFarland begins his reconstruction of turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village with vivid descriptions of the major groups that resided within its boundaries: the Italian immigrants and African Americans to the south, the Irish Americans to the west, the well-to-do Protestants to the north, and the New York University students, middle-class professionals, and artists and writers who lived in apartment buildings and boarding houses on or near Washington Square. He then examines how these Villagers, so divided along class and ethnic lines, interacted with one another. He finds that clashing expectations about what constituted proper behavior in the neighborhood's public spaces-especially streets, parks, and saloons-often led to intergroup conflict, political rivalries, and campaigns by the more privileged Villagers to impose middle-class mores on their working-class neighbors. Occasionally, however, a crisis or common problem led residents to overlook their differences and cooperate across class and ethnic lines.
Throughout the book, McFarland connects the evolution of Village life to the profound transformations taking place in American society at large during the same years. While the emergence of a bohemian subculture within the Village attracted the most publicity, there were other changes with broader and more lasting implications, at once anticipating and helping to create the modern model for cosmopolitan community in urban America.