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Renaissance of the Upper West Side

Among other developments seen for the West Side as a result of the special zoning regulations is the leasing of air rights over the 90-acre Penn Central railroad yards between 59th and 72nd Street and West End Avenue and the river. There are already plans for extending Riverside Park south to 59th Street to meet the three new luxury piers planned for that location. The Department of Parks has allocated money for the rehabilitation of 13 blocks of the Broadway mall as the first stage in upgrading Broadway. There are plans to close West 63rd Street to traffic and provide a mall from Lincoln Center to Central Park. The local groups are currently engaged in a bitter struggle with a private developer who wants to erect a 42-story luxury apartment at that location with a 500-car garage entrance directly across the street from a school.

A less pretentious, though in many ways even more imaginative, piece of West Side design is a small playground at Central Park West and 67th Street. The creation of Richard Dottner, the playground bears no similarity whatever to the Robert Moses don't-swing-on-the-swings approach to playgrounds. Dottner built a two-level tree house around the trunk of an old tree and a 10-foot-high pyramid of railroad ties with a slide on one side wide enough for three youngsters and lots of ways to get off without losing face if the slide proves too steep. There are smaller pyramids filled with ladders and tunnels and slides. There is a storyteller-in-residence, and tacked to the playground fence are drawings and notes for the band of mothers who organize the ad hoc activities and guard their young.

"Before the Adventure Playground and the new vacant-lot playgrounds," one local woman said, "the playgrounds in the area were awful. They were like prisons. They were all painted those dull greens and grays. I'd watch bright kids go into those swing-and-seesaw horrors and be bored to death.

"Soon after we started over here, however, I began to notice that the playgrounds were getting more and more crowded. The Adventure Playground, for instance, is really much too crowded at this point, and one of the reasons, you might be interested to know, is that a lot of East Side mothers are sending their kids over here to play."

For many West Siders, like this aggressive young mother, the scent of pride is in the air. The East Side can hardly be mentioned without gratuitous comments about its "sterility," its part-time residents ("they're off in Geneva or Palm Beach most of the year") and its resultant lack of community life.

"We lived over there before we moved," the woman continued, "and when I took my kids to the park I was surrounded by nannies who looked at me as though I had a disease.

"We used to worry about all that stuff. You know, about the West Side being a state of mind, a way of life. My husband and I were stupid enough to worry about it so long that when we finally moved we paid $65,000 for a house we could have gotten for $18,000 five years ago. As far as I'm concerned, if you have a family and want to live in New York, it can only be done on this side of town. If you're a career girl on bennies or a millionaire, the East Side's home."

To the area's new resident activists, builders and city planners, the next West Side Story will be very different from the last. It has been, after all, 12 years since Leonard Bernstein wrote his gang-war musical and six years since the Vivian Beaumont Theatre replaced the West 64th Street tenements in which the play was set. That huge, sprawling, alternate-side-of-the-street society filled with shabby, low-rent housing and Oscar Lewis runaways is changing fast. "In five years," one city planner said, "the only dumpy little shoppingbag ladies you'll be able to find on the West Side will be stuffed and behind glass at the Museum of Natural History."


Related:

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