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Renaissance of the Upper West Side

The West Side is an area of such variety that it appears as though some percentage of just about every ethnic, religious, economic and social group that ever lived there has stubbornly insisted upon remaining. In fact, in 1907 a charitable foundation built a 350-apartment tenement on West 64th Street for West Indian domestics, and today there are still 650 people living in those apartments, most of them descendants of the original tenants. The Upper West Side was first populated in the 1830s by wealthy New York Protestants who maintained bucolic summer residences near what is now Broadway and West 93rd Street. The area remained a predominantly WASP community (there are still seven Episcopal churches and a cathedral) through the Civil War and into the 1890s, when large numbers of Irish immigrants moved into the area to help build the Amsterdam Avenue steam elevated as well as the tenements along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. By 1910 the Irish were predominant, and Tammany politics and the dark mahogany bars of Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues (many are still there) ruled the West Side. The first Russian, Polish and German Jewish families began moving into the area about that time. To these people, most of them having moved from the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side, Chelsea and parts of Harlem, the West Side was the suburbia of the day. In the late '20s and early '30s the construction of the IND subway line created a tremendous building boom, despite the Depression, and it was during this period that many of the massive stone and brick apartment houses that line Central Park West, West End Avenue, Broadway and Riverside Drive were built. At approximately the same time in Germany the 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.

The West Side was the reception center for a forced emigration of professionals, the wealthy and the educated, and it gave the area a decidedly intellectual, middle-European flavor. The West Side never lost that quality, and there were always bookshops in the area, newspaper stands with foreign journals and magazine stalls crammed with little intellectual publications. As a result of this continued intellectual climate the area has always attracted writers, editors, playwrights and critics. Three months ago Lewis Nichols of the New York Times wrote: "An excellent case may be made out that the West Side of Manhattan, lying between Central Park and the Hudson, now has taken over from the Village." Nichols attributes economics, the area's large, well-constructed if somewhat faded buildings, its informal "sweater and chino" style, its spectacular Hudson River views, and Riverside Park as the main reasons for Isaac Bashevis Singer, Thedore Reik, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Clive Barnes, Roger Butterfield, Alfred Kazin, Frederick Morton, Joseph Heller, Eliot Asinof, Jack Gelber, Robert Lowell, James T. Farrell, Gerold Frank, Murray Kempton, Murray Shisgal and Jules Feiffer's living there.

The visible blight of the West Side could first be seen shortly after World War II. The citywide housing shortage that followed the war caused over-crowding, and the large apartments and residence hotels of the West Side were quickly partitioned into small apartments and furnished rooms to take advantage of the situation. The deterioration of the West Side actually began in 1939, during the World's Fair, when 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. By the early '50s housing on the West Side had deteriorated to such an extent that Mayor Robert F. Wagner appointed the Mayor's Slum Clearance Committee under Robert Moses to rebuild the area. This agency compounded the chaos of the West Side by turning over to unscrupulous housing "redevelopers" huge sections of the area for demolition while thousands of families still lived in the buildings. Little or no attempt was made to relocate the area's predominantly low-income families when their homes were torn down, and many were forced to move in with relatives and friends nearby. Once demolished, the old tenements were often replaced by parking lots or luxury housing, but the most common practice among the "redevelopers" was to allow the condemned buildings they had appropriated to remain standing. From these constantly deteriorating buildings developers exacted exorbitant rents from desperate tenants while supplying no services, heat or maintenance. The Welfare Department began filling the furnished rooms and crumbling hotels of the West Side with the city's most socially dependent and antisocial citizens. Soon junkies, prostitutes, the retarded, petty criminals, dischargees from state mental hospitals, young mothers with dependent children, the enfeebled, the blind and the destitute were all jammed into the squalor of a decaying neighborhood. As a result of that policy there are still 24,500 of the city's 32,000 single-room occupants living on the West Side, and it was not until two years ago that the 'first serious efforts were made to give these residents the kind of heavy-duty, concentrated assistance that they require.


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  • Archive: “Real Estate
  • From the Jun 30, 1969 issue of New York
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