Commentary Magazine


The Upper West Side, Then and Now

I live in a small city in the midst of a great city. It is the same one in which I grew up four decades ago, and its buildings and landmarks and topography are almost entirely unchanged. Usually the small cities in America that never change are the ones whose best days came half a century or more ago and are now literally rotting away before your eyes, their once-handsome houses mottling, their fences akimbo, their storefronts boarded, their grass untended, their gas stations abandoned on windblown corners. My small city could have been one of those static, increasingly impoverished, blighted places. Indeed, everything suggested it would be.

Nostalgia can be a treacherous mistress, because she glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable. Since I live only a mile from where I was born and raised, with only slight changes to the visual landscape, I find myself constantly under nostalgia’s threat. An indifferent French restaurant occupies the space that once housed the record store where I bought my first 45 rpm disc of the Cowsills singing the title song from Hair, and standing in front of it I split into two, the 49-year-old in the present and the seven-year-old in the past crossing its portal with a little brown paper bag in hand, excited beyond measure to get its contents home to place the needle on the 45’s ridge and watch it slide into the first groove, the sound of the scratches giving way to the opening blast of the Cowsills’ five-part harmony. In the same way, standing on a Thursday evening in front of the building in which I was born and raised, I am suddenly in the hazy light of an early Sunday morning at the age of six and managing for the first time to right the bicycle from which the training wheels had lately been removed and then wobbling my way down the block and around the corner and around the second corner and then around the third—and slamming the bike into a toddler who was wobbling his way forward in front of his building.

That memory is itself almost certainly a conflation of two moments that occurred months apart, but in retrospect, they blend high exhilaration and low shame, an almost perfect distillation of the bipolarity of childhood feeling. That is the ambiguous power of nostalgia, as the jagged recollection of hitting a tiny child with a bicycle still has the power to catch like a rusted nail four decades later and open a fresh wound.

Living in the precincts of one’s own past means that its fears and terrors are immediately accessible as well. And in this case, I don’t mean the universal fears—a closed closet door, a dark hallway, a school bully—but rather the very specific fears that came with growing up in my small city in the midst of the big city at a very specific moment. On the spot across the street from a friend’s building, I freeze with the sensation of having, right there, been jumped nearly 40 years earlier by four kids as I got off the city bus from school. They took my empty wallet and the little folder containing the invaluable pass that afforded me free access that month to that bus line. I was mugged four times before I was 14. I think this was the second time.

So my small city is the same and yet it is not the same, because it is today, in almost every way, better. Usually, when we talk about the differences in American life between past and present, there is a moment in which we feel compelled to denounce today’s pathologies in comparison with the moral certainties of older times. But on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my small city, social pathologies began to run rampant half a century ago, long before they broke into the wider culture. And every effort to cure them through large-scale government action only made matters worse, in one of the most potent demonstrations of the law of unintended consequences.

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The Upper West Side of my youth was in no way a fabled or especially notable area. In 1983, a sociologist named Richard Shafer told the New York Times, “The West Side is a neighborhood that always seems to embarrass the fashionable.” Its most attractive streets were and are no match architecturally or decoratively for the boulevards of the East Side, Fifth and Park Avenues. Aside from the Museum of Natural History overlooking Central Park and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial overlooking Riverside Park, the area lacks notable monuments. These days, double-decker tourist buses travel the streets of the Upper West Side, and I can’t imagine what narration the guides offer besides pointing out various spots at which the various incarnations of the Law and Order television series have been filmed on location. Would it be meaningful to a visitor in 2010 to know that Isaac Bashevis Singer lived in the Belnord on 86th and Broadway; that Singer’s brother Israel Joshua set the final section of his magnificent novel of German Jewry, The Family Carnovsky, at 94th and West End; that the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff spent his final years at 84th and West End? Doubtful.

Conservatives sometimes invoke the Upper West Side in their lists of petri-dish-like leftist enclaves along with Cambridge and Berkeley, but despite its homogeneous radicalism, it didn’t then and doesn’t now offer much in the way of interesting, unexpected, or comical ideological excess. Even 50 years ago, its leftism was a lived-in leftism, a legacy leftism, dull and humorless and orthodox, inherited from parents and grandparents and already growing threadbare around the elbows like an old tweed jacket whose patches were themselves worn out from use.

It might have been the most integrated area in the United States. According to a 1966 study, out of 150,000 residents, 105,000 were white (of whom 40,000 were Jews); 26,000 came from Spanish-speaking homes; and 18,000 were black. “Only in Honolulu,” wrote the journalist Joseph P. Lyford, “is there a greater confusion of blood, ancestry, language, and culture in as small a space.” But though there were racial and ethnic tensions aplenty, and these would grow exponentially as the years passed, the division in the neighborhood was primarily one of class—a division between the middle class and the lower class. (There weren’t many rich people on the Upper West Side then, a situation much altered today.) And within those classes there was division as well. The middle class was split between the professionals of the New York intelligentsia—media and intellectuals and academics and psychoanalysts—and more down-to-earth educated folk, public school teachers and union officials and social workers. Meanwhile, the working poor found themselves menaced and increasingly overwhelmed by the burgeoning welfare underclass.

Indeed, the diseases afflicting the underclass surfaced on the Upper West Side perhaps earlier than anywhere else, leading to large-scale social experimentation of a sort that would not be practiced today. An article on the front page of the New York Times on July 6, 1961, reported: “Street fighting involving 400 Puerto Ricans and Negroes broke out in a West Side trouble block.” Two women began arguing “over a man,” and a brawl erupted. A pair of cops who had been permanently assigned to the block because of previous incidents fired eight shots into the air in an effort to still the melee but were “engulfed by the crowd.”

The Times described it as “a block of decaying tenements packed with poor Puerto Rican and Negro families and the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts and sexual perverts.” It soon became known as the “worst block in the city.” Mayor Robert Wagner announced a “shock attack,” an “all-out war on the forces of crime, slum blight and poverty” on the West Side. Police flooded the area. The block in question was 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The very idea that it might once have been considered the city’s worst is very nearly science-fictional today, as it bustles with high-end baby strollers pushed by parents hurrying to homey restaurants on Amsterdam or Columbus or making their way to Central Park.
But in 1961, 84th Street was a nightmare, and something had to be done. So a volleyball net was erected. An asphalt crew came to repave. Social workers divided the block into “three play sectors,” with adults playing volleyball, teenagers playing inside at a youth center, and “younger children the east end.” Six months later, the Times declared that the problem had been managed: “‘Worst’ Is Over on West 84th Street.” The solution was depopulation and destruction: “The Department of Real Estate reported that 709 families had moved or been relocated from buildings due to give way for new schools.” Only then it was called slum clearance and urban renewal.

Over the course of the next four years, 20 houses on the block would be demolished and replaced with a high school named for Louis Brandeis and a relocated elementary school. Of the 35 brownstones that lined the block, only seven remain today. While any such demolition of livable housing stock would be greeted with cries of horror today from poverty advocates and landmarking experts, the policy was stronglyadvocated by neighborhood clergy, who had high hopes that the struggling poor could make a better life in public housing. And so commenced the razing of scores of buildings, beginning in February 1963. As Lyford wrote in 1966, “a twenty-block site of a multimillion-dollar urban renewal program laying between Eighty-seventh and Ninety-seventh streets and bounded by Central Park on the west and Amsterdam Avenue on the East” was the fulcrum of this massive slum-clearance plan, involving the loss of 6,344 households.

It went badly. The destruction and construction took years, leaving behind rubble that became at-hand weaponry for kids and gangsters and boarded-up tenements that became crime sites and drug dens. Eventually the projects were built, but by this point the displaced residents of West 84th and others like them had been moved like chess pieces around the New York City board to other neighborhoods, worsening them. And the new projects that rose up on the Upper West Side became breeding grounds of concentrated disorder, causing thousands of disintegrating and disintegrated families to fall under the sway of an even more destructive lawlessness easier to ignore, perhaps, precisely because it was so concentrated and because so much of what was awful went on indoors.

The “broken windows” theory propounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1983 has entered into the realm of cliché—the idea that if you don’t replace a broken window on an abandoned building, more of the windows will be broken and the area around them will decay as well. They might have called it the “airmail” theory. In Lyford’s celebrated 1966 account of the Upper West Side’s decline, The Airtight Cage, he writes of the “airmail” that landed in the backyard of his brownstone on 92nd between Columbus and Central Park West from the windows of the row of tenements on 93rd street:

My first introduction to airmail was a bag of rotten food that landed in my back yard a week after I bought the house.. . .I could not get the police or the sanitation department to stop the airmail so I collected it. Twice a week I would go out back (after a few beer bottles whizzed past my head I wore my tin hat from World War II) and shovel up three or four days’ accumulation of chicken bones, pieces of rancid fowl, chop bones, half-empty cans of beans and other vegetables, eggshells, bags full of fat, condoms, and bloody bandages, which I at first mistakenly thought were battle dressings for the victims of fights I had been hearing. I finally made the right connection when I discovered several glass ampules and hypodermic needles.

Lyford then dumped the refuse over his fence onto the concrete apron outside the offending tenements so that their superintendent could collect it, bag it, and leave it for the garbage men. A neighborhood in which people think nothing of tossing their garbage out the window is a neighborhood both literally and spiritually diseased.

A little more than a decade later, my sisters shared an apartment in a midrise next door to what had been Lyford’s brownstone. They were mugged in the lobby one night after taking a taxi home from our apartment 15 blocks away. At the time, I was going to high school a block away and walked every morning past the tenements from which the airmail had been dropped on Lyford’s yard.

That mugging was nothing unusual. Everybody got mugged. Once, after I was punched, my wallet stolen, my glasses (!) pulled from my face, and my sneakers removed outside the side exit to the Olympia movie theater on 107th between Broadway and Amsterdam, my parents called the police and two mammoth cops showed up and drove me around the neighborhood looking for my two assailants by checking out sneakers. But I had to wear my old prescriptions and couldn’t see very well.

On that very block in 1972 (probably two years before my mugging), a 10-year-old boy named Jimmy Wallace was found in the hallway of his apartment house with stab wounds in his back and neck. Jimmy’s penis had been cut off. Left for dead, he lived, the only surviving victim of a serial killer who prowled the neighborhood for a year. He murdered and castrated four boys. We neighborhood kids came to call him, with the horrible bluntness of adolescent boys, Charlie Chop-off. He struck on 106th between Broadway and Amsterdam, a block from my building. He struck on 104th and 103rd.

Imagine such a thing today. It would dominate news coverage in the country for weeks, if not months. We would remember it now as we remember the Son of Sam, and the Washington snipers, and the Hillside Strangler. But in 1972 and 1973, Charlie Chop-off had so little resonance beyond the blocks near me that when I made mention of it in a short story I read to my eighth-grade class—in a school on the Upper West Side—my classmates hadn’t heard of it. In part that was because the then-senescent New York Post hadn’t brought new life to tabloid journalism and forced the fat and happy and rich New York Daily News to follow it, which is what happened in the summer of 1977, when the Son of Sam went on his rampage. And in part it was due to the difficulty the media had, even in the wake of the 1960s, reporting on the details of the crime (the New York Times, in every one of the five—only five!—articles it published on the case, referred vaguely to “sexual mutilation”). Others would doubtless claim that because the victims were black and Hispanic, there was less interest than there would have been had the victims been white; more likely, there was newsroom concern about stigmatizing thesebeaten-down poverty–stricken populations.

And there was also the simple fact that the small city and the larger city had both grown pessimistic about the ability of authorities to do much of anything to prevent these horrors, so it seemed almost churlish to report on them. A fine and forgotten 1975 book by Barbara Gelb called On the Track of Murderit reads like a nonfiction version of Ed McBain’s glorious 49-year series of police procedurals about the 87thPrecinct, a lightly disguised version of the real-life 24th Precinct on the Upper West Side—tells the story of the homicide squad formed to catch Charlie Chop-off. In a striking sentence reflective of the fatalistic attitude of the time, she writes, “Crime prevention was, of course, the Police Department’s first priority, as preventive medicine was the primary concern of health administrators. But murder, like cancer, was rarely preventable.” Charlie Chop-off was never caught.

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The reclamation of New York City from the forces of criminal chaos and social decay is a familiar tale by now. The statistics for the 24th Precinct offer the most dramatic portrait of the vertiginous rise of crime and its exhilarating plunge. In 1964, the year the national crime spiral began, 3,228 felonies were committed. By 1990, there were 5,641 felonies. In 1998, that number had dropped to 2,000; last year, in 2009, only 987 felonies were committed there.

The area continues to be among the nation’s most integrated. The 24th Precinct has about the same racial and ethnic makeup it did when Lyford published his book in 1966. (The 20th, in which West 84th Street sits, has become somewhat more, as they say in the census, Caucasian.) The great surprise, perhaps, is that while it is no longer the home of the Jewish intelligentsia—in part because the Jewish intelligentsia doesn’t exist as it once did—it is, if anything, even more distinctively and vibrantly Jewish. For the reclamation of the neighborhood proved to have a spiritual component as well.

The 40,000 Jews who lived there in 1960 were primarily secular and in flight from their faith. Three conservative synagogues in a 15-block radius from 100th Street to 86th Street had fallen into decrepitude and near-dormancy. The neighborhood’s smattering of Orthodox residents did little to manifest their observance publicly. But over the past 20 years in particular, the Upper West Side has turned into the most affluent shtetl the world has ever seen. One doesn’t walk a block without seeing a yarmulke; the three conservative synagogues are alive and buzzing with congregants; the neighborhood’s gans, day schools, and yeshivas are educating some 4,000 children; a dozen kosher restaurants and two kosher supermarkets profitably serve an increasingly observant community. This is genuine urban renewal, which rose from once-rank soil after the soil was, finally, properly tended and tilled and brought once again to life.

It is an expensive place to live, but then it always was. My children, who are very young, will know, as my sisters and I did, the oddity of being both entirely privileged and yet significantly poorer than most of their classmates and friends. What they will not have to learn, as my sisters and I and our wealthier friends did, is how to accommodate and make normal an ever-present sense of everyday menace. The city’s population shrank by nearly a million people between 1960 and 1980, with 300,000 gone from Manhattan over the course of those 20 years. Some of that was due to the destruction of housing not only by the city’s own slum-clearance policies but also by the ravages of rentcontrols that led to the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of apartments. But it was also due tomiddle-class flight, topeople who chose to live free of the menace.

“We were giving up so much of our city,” Myron Magnet has written in a beautiful essay on Saul Bellow’s great 1970 novel of Upper West Side (and Western civilizational) decline, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and how it spoke to his experience as a neighborhood resident. “We came to wonder if New York was a place that stunted human possibility instead of expanding it.”

It did. It no longer does. To hell with nostalgia.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary. His article “The Purposes of Political Combat” appeared in the April issue.




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