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The Death of (the Idea of) the Upper East Side

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Going to the opera, 1941.  

My fiancée is a post-deb with a venerable surname and a deep, burnished voice that sounds as if it had been passed down through many generations. So 10021-centric is she that after her first 25-minute cab ride to my apartment, she admitted that the Village was fun but complained, “It’s so far away from everything.” And on our first excursion to Rivington Street, she started to get a little nervous when she saw graffiti on the walls and sidewalks.

Many of her friends live within a few blocks of her apartment on East 72nd, and on any given night she will find some of them at Swifty’s or Doubles or La Grenouille. Her children attended Spence and Buckley before they moved on to prep school. The boards on which she serves have their meetings in the neighborhood. The Hampton Jitney stops half a block from her apartment. When we first started looking at real estate downtown, she was shocked to learn that not only wasn’t the Village a bargain but it seemed to be more expensive than Park Avenue in the Seventies, which has been the pinnacle of social aspiration for most of the past century. And she couldn’t help noticing that all the cool new buildings are going up downtown. There are plenty of crappy Bauhaus-lite towers east of Third, but anything resembling innovative modern architecture doesn’t seem too welcome on the Upper East Side—the proposed ovoid glass apartment tower by celebrated architect Lord Norman Foster on upper Madison has been opposed by the local community board; its fate hangs on a decision by the Landmarks commission and the city planning department. The announcement by the board of the Whitney Museum, that after years of struggling to gain approval for its expansion plans it would probably take its toys and move down to Chelsea or the meatpacking district, might be interpreted as a huffy slap at the neighborhood and its preservationists. No one in living memory has suggested that the Upper East Side is, or ought to be, at the cutting edge of the culture, but as the city enters a bold new era of development it risks becoming a museum of Olde New York.

Back in the days when Henry James was in short pants, New York society, such as it was, was huddled around Washington Square Park. Until the 1850s, most of the Upper East Side was common land and pastures. Central Park was completed by 1860, but no one really coveted the land adjacent to this uninhabited wilderness, and upper Fifth Avenue was slow to attract the kind of residents who didn’t keep hogs out back. Forty-second Street still qualified as uptown when construction of the Metropolitan Museum began in 1880. In 1888, upper Fourth Avenue was paved over and renamed Park Avenue, although the stretch between 42nd and 57th was still a grimy rail yard. Stanford White finished a house on Madison and 72nd Street for Charles L. Tiffany around 1885, and the cachet of the neighborhood was further bolstered when Caroline Astor had a Richard Morris Hunt château built at 65th and Fifth within the next decade. By the turn of the century, members of the 400 (the supposed number that Mrs. Astor was able to accommodate in her ballroom) like the Schermerhorns and the Rhinelanders had moved up and built townhouses in the area. Clubs like the Metropolitan, the Knickerbocker, the Colony, and the Union, which still define a certain Waspy subset of New York society, rose within a few years of each other. The Vanderbilts and Astors must have been relieved when asphalt was finally laid down on upper Fifth Avenue in 1897. Park Avenue became thoroughly fashionable after the train tracks were moved underground.

Although the Upper West Side developed more rapidly, the blue bloods moved cautiously up the East Side along the artery of Fifth. Montgomery Schuyler, the Lewis Lapham of the Gilded Age, observed that West Side apartment buildings tended toward the gaudy; Fifth Avenue, on the other hand, was the proper address for a gentleman.

Well into the twentieth century, blue bloods and their imitators lived in houses. The concept of apartment living, of different families sharing a common roof, was still wildly outré if not downright scandalous in 1912, when 998 Fifth, a McKim, Mead & White building, arose on Millionaire’s Row opposite the Met. Like all the Fifth Avenue apartment buildings that would succeed it, and unlike the towers of Central Park West, it was restrained and understated in its grandeur. Among the new residents at 998 was Levi P. Morton, who served as governor of New York as well as vice-president of the U.S. and who was one of those prominent New Yorkers whose uptown drift was emblematic. “Morton’s migrations up Fifth Avenue had always seemed to forge the way for the city’s elite,” says Elizabeth Hawes in New York, New York, her improbably riveting history of the New York apartment building. “From 17th Street to 42nd Street in 1891 (where he provided the setting in which Edith Wharton could come out more discreetly than at Delmonico’s); from there to 55th Street in 1894 … from 55th Street to 81st Street, where he forsook the genteel traditions of houses altogether.” Over the course of the next twenty years, grand apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue and Park redefined the concept of the good life. In a city that was still chaotic and dangerous, the western half of the Upper East Side, with its broad avenues and its doorman-guarded buildings, represented the equivalent of a gated community for the childbearing wealthy, with Central Park as the ultimate backyard. From that day down to the present, an apartment in one of several dozen buildings built before 1930—the number of “good buildings” is generally agreed to be 42—was necessity for status-conscious New Yorkers, as well as for those who had made their pile in Kalamazoo or Caracas and wanted to plant their flag at the center of the world. At least until recently.


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