One of the great challenges of my research has been deciphering the handwriting of late New York University history professor Bayrd Still (1906-1992), a frequent creator and leader of walking tours throughout Downtown Manhattan. One of the walking tours that I have chosen to map is an unpublished, unfinished tour Prof. Still was working on between the late-70s and early-80s–from what I can gather based on pertinent correspondences found in his files at the NYU Archives, which he founded. The tour, an exploration of Greenwich Village’s literary figures, their homes and hang-outs, appears in Still’s archives twice, both times as a set of not terribly clear photocopies of the 40 or so index cards on which the tour’s first draft was written. Titled, tentatively, Literary Greenwich Village, the tour moved in a circle within a ten block area around Washington Square, beginning with the birthplace of Henry James and ending up at a well-know Beat haunt on Bleecker Street. Though dates and street names have tended to be easy to discern, I’ve run into difficulties trying to make out the names of the tour’s less famous figures. One series of stops involving the Liberal Club–a group of influential New Yorkers (some quite conservative, it turns out) who met during the second half 19th century and the early twentieth century to discuss politics, science, ethics and so on, often hosting expert guest speakers–was especially difficult to piece together. Fortunately, the New York Times‘s digital archives proved to be an extremely helpful resource in this regard.

It turns out that for whatever reason–presumably some of its staff writers were members–the Times published an account of virtually every single Liberal Club meeting between from 1869 onward. One especially fascinating and very brief article from 1908 not credited to a specific journalist, “200 In the Liberal Club; Writers, Preachers, Business Men, and Women in Society in It,” not only provided the name of the author that I had been trying to decode, but portrayed a fascinating sense of conflict within this influential set. Most notably, this passage confirmed the sense of subcultural belonging many of the writers included in Still’s tour found in Greenwich Village and the Liberal Club: “Some of the members are radicals, some conservatives; among them are Socialists, and even suffragettes; but there are also women well known in society and business men.” In fact, these radical writers who flocked to the poorer South and West sides of Washington Square, while the wealthier conservatives gradually moved uptown, increasingly became the Liberal Club’s dominant force. These archived articles about the Liberal Club took me on a fascinating two-hour tangent–not entirely tangential, though, since so many of the authors cited and sited in Still’s tour were very active members in the club–reading sometimes fantastic accounts of the scandalous lifestyles practiced by those radical writers. This decades-long narrative also made me feel optimistic about the never-finished role of young, creative people crafting spaces for new ways of life in the hotly contested urban ecosystem. And I figured out who that illegible author was: Liberal Club member Le Roy Scott.