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Renaissance of the Upper West Side

"Anyone wanting to say anything, jot down your name," Robert Schur of the Planning Board said after the store's attorney spoke, and about one third of the audience rose and signed in.

A demure, round-faced black woman was the first speaker. She wore a blue pantsuit with gold buttons and a tan sweater.

"I think the promise of jobs is just an allurement," she began, looking directly at the front row in which the store's representatives were seated.

"Grave consequences will come to the neighborhood with the incursion of one large department store. Others will follow. Broadway and 96th Street could be as distressing a place to live as East 59th Street and Lexington Avenue with all that traffic and trucking that goes along with lots of department stores."

She was cheered.

A young bearded man rose and said that both the Riverside and the Riviera movie theatres were being destroyed by the new store, even though Alexander's planned to build a new theatre.

A representative of the West Side Hotel Association said Alexander's would be a great asset to the neighborhood and would "attract desirable stores." When he emphasized "desirable," some of the younger people in the audience laughed and snickered.

A Puerto Rican man next addressed the crowd and said, "The Puerto Rican community has already had a meeting and we are opposed to Alexander's move to 96th Street, and the reason was that this community needs more housing and schools. If they want to improve the neighborhood, why don't they put up a school and call it Alexander's the Great?"

A representative of the West Side Merchants' Association rose and supported Alexander's.

Another man, a local jeweler, followed and said, "In 30 years I've never heard of the West Side Merchants' Association," and then sat down.

Julia McCarthy, an attractive young woman with the Citywide Housing Coalition Committee, pointed out that the real danger with Alexander's was not the traffic it would bring to the area, but the real-estate speculators. Most of the large, low-profit, rent-controlled apartment buildings around the site would increase in value, and it would not be long before lobbying speculators would gobble them up for commercial developments, thus evicting the middle-class and low-income families who live in them. She suggested that if the store's zoning variance is to be given, a proviso that they build 200 public housing units above the store should be attached. She was loudly cheered by most of the audience.

The owner of an all-night Ping-Pong parlor on the proposed site explained that the new store would deprive neighborhood people of a recreational oasis. John Fiore, of the onsite EAT SHOP, said, "The stores they're eliminating are the better stores. The best street is being demolished." A young man explained that an ecology exists in cities and that to dump a huge department store in the middle of a block could throw the area off balance just as surely as putting polar bears in beaver ponds. The meeting ended, as do most community participation meetings, with no concrete accomplishments to look back upon.

"Alexander's plan to wheel in a department store was taken by many residents as a Trojan horse . . . a declaration of war."

Henry Marquit, chairman of the West Side Planning Board No. 7, which takes in most of the area, was pleased with the West Siders' enthusiastic participation.

"We are having a renaissance up here, that's true," Marquit said, "but it is important to realize that this neighborhood is built upon a traditional base. This area has the best population mix in the city. An attempt has to be made to protect this balance, and the primary concern is housing."

According to population projections of the Upper West Side based on 1960 census figures (72 per cent Caucasian, 15 per cent black and 13 per cent Puerto Rican), the area's white population is expected to increase to 82 per cent by 1970. Keeping Manhattan from becoming a polarized borough of either rags or riches is something that many planners feel cannot be left to chance. Already, they point out, many of the Upper West Side's residents are earning more than $15,000 a year, while the area still has an over-all unemployment rate higher than the rest of the city.

"People feel threatened," Marquit continued. "The area could very easily become upper middle class like much of the East Side. Rent-controlled apartments are slowly slipping away. Well-maintained tenements with reasonable rents are becoming too valuable to remain as such. In addition, there is more to this 'upper income' business than most people care to admit. When it takes two paychecks to pay the rent, that's not affluence. Many of us are convinced that the only way to maintain the area's unique ethnic and economic mix is to get a master plan for the West Side to help shape its growth."


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