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Renaissance of the Upper West Side

Only the hardiest of city dwellers remained on the West Side during its period of blight—they, and their impoverished neighbors who had no choice. High crime rates, poor schools, indifferent bureaucrats, corruption and graft—all of the classic characteristics of urban disaster—were visiting the Upper West Side in the '50s. The result, however, was surprising. It created the most skeptical, municipally wise, politically organized, reform-conscious community in the city. West Siders became the nightmare of city bureaucrats. Citizen groups were formed, and soon there was very little about building codes, city officials, law enforcement, health regulations, education, welfare, relocation, the legislature, youth activities, real-estate assessments, political patronage, corruption and judgeships that they did not know. It was this community movement that became the basis of the Reform Democratic clubs of the West Side, which eventually replaced the Regular Democratic clubs. In Joseph Lyford's Airtight Cage, an excellent book about the West Side during this period, he writes of these volunteer groups: "They were considered 'bad news' by many of the city's bureaucrats and [were] incomprehensible to strangers. West Side activists talk of 'skewed rentals,' 'title vesting dates' and 'inspectional coordination.'

". . . Its decidely intellectual middle-European flavor has always attracted writers, editors, playwrights and critics . . ."

"They were sometimes so terrifying to bureaucrats that once a group called about the need for fixing some bathroom plumbing and the next day the city sent down 20 toilet seats."

Lyford described the city's "vast, informal machinery" at that time and the practice of funneling society's disciplinary and health problems into the West Side. Just about every sector of the Establishment, he wrote, participated in running the machinery of urban decay or lubricating it: slumlords would rent to the dead as well as the living provided they got a good price. They received immunity from fire inspections, building codes, health regulations and rent control. City employees who collaborated in the arrangement got "gratuities." The Welfare and Health Departments went along because they simply had no alternative. Judges slapped the slumlords on the wrist on those rare occasions when they were brought to court (in 1964 the average fine levied against a convicted slumlord was slightly over $18). "Approval of the system," Lyford continues, "is given by business leaders who lead the fight against adequate welfare and housing; prosperous financial institutions that refuse to lend money for private investment in slum rehabilitation; foundations that avoid any significant commitment to abolition of the slum; labor unions that have abandoned the low-paid worker and practiced racial discrimination; and white and black political organizations that have a vested interest in segregation and race politics."

In the face of such adversity the residents of the Upper West Side acquired a dynamic hardiness and a competitive spirit that is still very much in evidence. New residents soon learn to tolerate, if not join, their veteran West Side neighbors who blithely walk to the head of supermarket checkout lines, double-park their cars, ride bicycles on sidewalks, unleash their defecating dogs and beep their horns at traffic lights. It is a community of street participants. Curbside card tables line Broadway from West 72nd Street to Columbia University and dedicated petitioners snare, argue and shout with passersby about letting Biafra live, dumping the ABM and buying "scab" grapes. Assemblyman Albert H. Blumenthal, whose district takes in a 100-square-block area from about West 80th Street to West 100th, has 210 extremely active community organizations on his current legislative mailing list. "It is the most politically sophisticated district in the city," Blumenthal smiled wanly. "During campaigns, or on the street, people come up to you and they know what you're doing, what other legislators are doing and all of the subtleties of political life. For example, John Lindsay and I both won this district by the same percentage of votes, which means voters voted for him at the top of the line and then came down the machine and jumped over to me. The district's voting patterns show tremendous discernment. It was the only white district in the city that voted by a large percentage for the Civilian Review Board."

The West Side is a community in which aloofness is considered a sign of weakness. Busybodies abound. A gift horse on the West Side is considered Trojan until proved otherwise, and the announcement that Alexander's planned to wheel in a department store was taken by many individuals and neighborhood groups as a declaration of war. In fact, on the night of a public hearing to consider zoning changes necessary before the new Alexander's could be built, various West Side warrior groups were in the auditorium an hour early. About 120 local men and women listened quietly as a member of the Community Planning Board recapitulated what most of them already knew and then heard the department store's lawyer tell them that Alexander's needed the variance before they could build the store, that Alexander's planned to employ between 750 and 1,000 people from the surrounding area, that the store would be built by fully-integrated union crews and that no residential tenants live on the proposed site.


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