Maybe it’s a bias, but the best part of New York City is the Upper West Side. The list of why goes on and on.
The location is hard to beat, bordered by Central and Riverside Parks and boxed in by Columbus Circle to the south and Columbia University to the north. It’s a community where the arts are celebrated and Hollywood’s biggest stars come to premier their movies. It has born some of the world’s greatest literary and artistic minds including Nora Ephron and Billie Holiday.
Food galore, the options are endless through the entirety of the neighborhood. And have you seen some of the buildings around here? Stunning and beautiful.
See? The best. But the Upper West Side as we know it today almost never was.
The area itself was once only farmland and small villages, as was most of Manhattan way back when. Urbanization, particularly the Croton Aqueduct and the northward expansion of the subway system, escorted the neighborhood into the twentieth century where it bopped along for a few decades, growing in diversity and uniqueness.
Urbanization also brought cultural diversity. Writing for New York Magazine in June 1969, the future husband of the late Nora Ephron, Nicholas Pileggi, detailed the changing demographic of the neighborhood at the turn of the century – predominantly Irish by 1910 when large swaths of Polish, Russian, and German families moved from the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Chelsea tenements. “[T]he rise of Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism forced many prominent and well-established German Jews to leave their native cities and flee to other parts of the world. Many who had relatives or friends in the United States moved to the West Side. By 1938 they outnumbered the West Side’s Irish population.”
Unfortunately, the chaos that was prevalent in some parts of the city also invaded the neighborhood in the mid-1900s. By the time the 1939 World’s Fair rolled into Queens, the UWS was down on its luck.
To put it bluntly, the Upper West Side was where you didn’t want to be for the next two decades. Crime was out of control. Business after business shut down. Apartments were overcrowded. Robert Moses’ “slum clearance” left many blocks in jagged, uninhabitable shambles, including San Juan Hill and Manhattantown.
The cause? According to New York Magazine, “the city attempted to alleviate a drastic housing shortage by passing a law that made it profitable to break up large apartments and reclassify one and two-family brownstones into rooming houses. During the war the shortage worsened. Blocks that once held several hundred tenants now were jammed with thousands, and most of them were transients, troubled and lonely. The area’s traditional ‘mama and papa’ landlords moved out. Speculators moved in.”
A tipping point came in 1969 when Alexander’s Inc., then one of the city’s biggest retail stores, was set to open on Broadway between West 96th and 97th Streets. A two-year study helped Alexander’s make its decision, its research showing that high income people and families were moving in. Additionally, long-time UWS institutions decided to stay, including the Calhoun School and Zabar’s.
Alexander’s later withdrew its plans and Pileggi offered a potentially prescient reason why. “The West Side is a community in which aloofness is considered a sign of weakness. Busybodies abound. A gift horse on the West Side is considered Trojan until proved otherwise, and the announcement that Alexander’s planned to wheel in a department store was taken by many individuals and neighborhood groups as a declaration of war.”
Upper West Siders, galvanized by “West Side warrior groups,” stopped the big, bad chain store from settling in. In doing so, the warriors – and maybe with some assistance from the mere supposition that Alexander’s was coming – helped continue the area’s growth and usher in its renaissance.
Small businesses came back. The arts stayed along with its artists. The melting pot for which New York is renowned remained (and grew) as did the respective institutions, culture, and cuisine.
But what about the crime rate during the renaissance? New York City is infamous for the criminal element that was prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and the Upper West Side was not spared from that ugly reality. Pileggi reported in 1968 that “crime figures place the area in the unenviable top third of the city’s 76 precinct-house totals.” The New York Daily News wrote in September 2021 that the area had more violent crime in the ’70s and ’80s than it does today. However, the catalyst for the renaissance – the stream of people moving to the area and influx of new business and development – continued despite the rampant criminality city wide.
The Upper West Side that Pileggi described in 1969 – the cultural mix, the warriors, the blend of uber wealth and working class, the accessibility to bookshops and “newspaper stands with foreign journals and magazine stalls crammed with little intellectual publications” – still exists today. Pileggi might as well have been talking about the neighborhood in 2021 when he wrote that in 1969.
Despite the similarities that demonstrate how the Upper West Side has stayed true to its 1970s renaissance, it is hard not to question whether that renaissance has stalled. Even before the pandemic, it seemed that store after store went out of business or closed up shop to move to a new location. Long stretches of empty retail space run up and down Broadway as well as Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, block after block of ghosts and memories from yesteryear. But new construction continues to pop with amenities and costs outdoing those which rose before them.
Maybe this is standard New York. Maybe the changes today are just the usual cycle of out with the old, in with the new, where even nationwide blue-chip businesses are run out of town by steep rental increases or developers seeking to scrape the sky just a bit more than their tallest neighbor.
At least we’ll always have the pizza renaissance.