The Upper West Side isn’t what it used to be.
I first came to live in New York City in the summer of 1976, when I was starting a one year master’s program in urban planning at City College, after receiving a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell the previous spring. The master’s program was set up to bring architects into urban planning and provided a paid internship with a planning firm while the architect obtained a master’s. This was great for me because in the summer of 1976, the city and the country were in another one of those economic downtowns and there were no jobs for architects.
This was also a few months after The Daily News’ famous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” when the federal government denied federal assistance to New York City, and the city was in sad shape. Still, I was excited to come to New York City, and I made contact with another student, who was entering my planning program from Texas, and we agreed to find an apartment together.
I didn’t know much about neighborhoods in New York City, but as an undergraduate I had worked a number of summers in New York, and lived at my aunt and uncle’s apartment on Riverside Drive and 81st Street on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from Zabars. Since this was the only neighborhood I knew, I decided to look for an apartment nearby.
My classmate and I found an ad for a one-bedroom apartment in a brownstone on West 90th Street, between Broadway and West End Avenue. My new roommate was a little unsure of the neighborhood, but having previously summered ten blocks south, I assured him that this neighborhood was great, and we met with the landlord to take the apartment, and sign the lease.
Right after we signed the lease and walked out of the building to bring some stuff up to the apartment from my parents’ car parked on the street, I saw a late-model station wagon speeding away from a parking space immediately in front of the building. Just as it pulled away, a man came running up to us screaming, “Did you see the person who just drove off in that station wagon? My car was just stolen!”
This was an eye-opening experience, and as I started to pay more attention to my new neighborhood, I realized that ten blocks made a big difference in 1976, and I was not in “Kansas” anymore. In addition to car thefts, which seemed to occur daily in those days, Broadway in the 90s was the center of the Upper West Side’s red-light district.
I learned to walk quickly and avert my eyes. I also learned to avoid walking too close to parked cars that were moving and shaking.
After evening classes, as I walked to my new apartment from the subway exit at 94th Street, I would inevitably pass a number of provocative ladies offering their services on a nightly basis. I learned to walk quickly and avert my eyes. I also learned to avoid walking too close to parked cars that were moving and shaking.
Despite these inconveniences, I ended up enjoying the apartment, making friends in the building, and staying four more years after I graduated, long after my roommate returned to Texas. By the time I left that neighborhood and moved to my current apartment on West 96th Street and Central Park West, the ladies of the night had moved on, and the area had become truly gentrified.
Still, to this day, if I am walking near Broadway and I see a parked car moving and shaking, my heart races and I will quickly cross the street.