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

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Still later, you will see many faces from the antiques show at Swifty’s, the modest little bistro that has replaced Mortimer’s as the canteen of the tribe. At Swifty’s, as at ‘21,’ people who fly in front of the plane or in private planes happily dine shoulder to shoulder and cheek by jowl in a space that resembles a subway car at rush hour. Up front, Kathy and Billy Rayner wave to Kimberly Du Ross, while in the tiny back room, Rand and Jessie Araskog are hosting a party for some of the patrons and committee members, and when they eventually head for the front door close to eleven, it’s like watching the clowns pour out of a Volkswagen—very expensively dressed, heavily bejeweled, late-middle-aged clowns, many of whom have their own chauffeured cars waiting outside although their apartments are only steps away. “There go the antique people,” says a young banker at my table. It takes him a moment to realize he’s cracked a joke.

It’s 10:45 on the Upper East Side. If you want another drink, then you’d best head downtown.

In a city that was still chaotic and dangerous, the western slice 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.

My dinner at Swifty’s reminded me of the Upper East Side period of my own life. Like many Manhattan-dwelling breeders, I just assumed that when I finally spawned, I would—more or less like a salmon—have to move inexorably upstream. Specifically, to the Upper East Side, for the schools. Of course, there were Collegiate and Trinity on the West Side, if you happened to want one of those particular schools, but there weren’t any restaurants to speak of back then, and I don’t think my then-wife had ever actually set foot on the Upper West Side. She was already living in Turtle Bay when we got married in 1991, more than halfway to the Upper East.

I lived then in the West Village, which I considered by far the most congenial neighborhood in the city. All the amenities of single life were nearby: bars, bookstores, restaurants, and nightclubs. There were a few kids around, most of them belonging to Brian and Keith McNally, as far as I could tell, and I was aware that St. Luke’s and Grace Church School and the Little Red Schoolhouse were somewhere nearby … but at least half the neighbors were gay men and it was basically a neighborhood where breakfast was taken at eleven and whether you liked it or not the trannies from the adjacent meatpacking district were going to use your stairwell as their place of business and sooner or later you were probably going to get mugged. These minor inconveniences notwithstanding, this was the downtown fantasy that many of us non-native New Yorkers had moved to the city in search of, the New York of the Abstract Expressionists and the Talking Heads, because we’d heard of the Cedar Tavern and CBGB. We didn’t want to be Jock Whitney or Carter Burden; we wanted to be Patti Smith or Jim Carroll.

But one day someone got pregnant. Maybe by accident or maybe after a long course of in vitro, in which case you’d probably already thought about moving uptown because that’s where most of the fertility clinics were. I convinced myself that saying ciao to the Village was part of growing up, an inevitable rite of passage, like buying a Brooks Brothers suit after graduation. It wasn’t just the schools, all the new parents ensconced in the East Seventies would tell you—it was the pediatricians and the park and the nanny network and the whole child-rearing infrastructure from Serendipity to Jacadi. This is where you inevitably ended when you started waking up at 6 a.m.—as everybody assured you you would soon be doing, once the kids came—as opposed to going to bed at 6 a.m.

If a single precipitating event can be pinpointed, the beginning of the end for the Upper East Side might be John Kennedy Jr.’s taking up residence in Tribeca. As a young man, John-John had moved first to the Upper West Side, then later downtown, not an unusual trajectory for an Upper East Side scion, even then. But when he became a grown-up and got married and still did not move back—and, in fact, displayed not the slightest inkling that he ought to or ever would—well, that suggested trouble. (It should be noted that John-John apparently did spend the last few weeks of his life, estranged from his wife, at the Stanhope, but that’s another story.)

If that defection could be explained away as an act of impetuous youth, there were others that could not, like Diane Von Furstenberg’s 1997 move from the Carlyle to a townhouse on far West 12th Street. Von Furstenberg has always crossed social boundaries, and her apartment at the Carlyle was one of New York’s great salons, the kind of place where European princesses might find themselves rubbing shoulders with West Chelsea queens; but some of her friends and their drivers must have had to get directions when the salon moved to the West Village. Charlie Rose soon became her neighbor. As the Giuliani era endured and it became clear that the citywide drop in crime was not a momentary blip but an incredible new fact of urban living, fear of those quaint but dark and unfamiliar little streets downtown receded. And then came word that renowned architect Richard Meier, who’d never built in Manhattan, was designing two residential towers along the waterfront in the West Village. While neighborhood activists rallied to fight the development, high-profile, deep-pocketed New Yorkers, the very sort who would never consider living anywhere but on the Upper East Side, started visiting Meier’s offices to look at the models and floor plans.


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