What Moses Couldn’t Kill
A living city is always becoming.
Then as now, it is spoken of as THE West Side—sometimes Upper, more often just the—but in reality it is dozens of communities lumped together under one geographical umbrella, running roughly from 59th Street to 110th. More than a community, the West Side was and still is a state of mind.
The earliest hints of the city’s turnaround were first recognized in the 1970s on the Upper West Side, even though signs could also be seen in other parts of the city, notably Brooklyn. But the Upper West Side was in the spotlight with all the massive urban renewal clearance projects going on and the presence of Lincoln Center. And the press was, at the time, very Manhattan-centric. Lincoln Center kept the media’s attention.
Flanked by two great Olmsted parks, divided by three distinct shopping streets, and served by two subway lines and several crosstown buses, the West Side had solid urban assets that helped it sustain considerable urban renewal erosion without killing it entirely. What the West Side also had that served as a crucial ingredient of rebirth was a wealth of solid, if badly abused, brownstones—blocks after blocks of them. Renovators started slowly buying them in the 1960s. In 1969, Donald and I bought and fully renovated a four-story brownstone, creating a duplex for ourselves and two floors of rental apartments above.1
7.1 Our brownstone on Eighty-seventh Street. We occupied the basement and parlor floor and rented the top two floors.
Most West Side brownstones had been built in the late 1890s for middle-class families but had not fared well over time. They had been broken up into tiny apartments and neglected by absentee landlords. But they were easily converted back to single-family, double-duplex dwellings or other combinations. House tours became a popular vehicle for early “brownstoners” to publicize the alternative lifestyle they were pioneering. Donald and I happened to go on one, were impressed, and thought a brownstone was the answer to our desire to stay in the city. We were already comfortably settled in a two-bedroom apartment on West Eighty-first Street across from the Planetarium and a half block from the Central Park playground. But the brownstones we saw were extremely attractive and still cheap. A house, backyard, barbecue, sandbox, and still be in the city? What an appealing concept, a compromise for the suburban resister.
I never thought of Donald and myself as urban pioneers, but when we bought the brownstone on the Upper West Side, many of our friends and relatives thought of us as such. How could we not want a house in the suburbs? When the kids started to come, most young couples at that time in the late 1960s headed out. This was the pattern expected of our generation. Neither Donald nor I would hear of it. Donald had been raised in a near-in suburb but wanted to stay in the city, as I did. Other city couples were resisting the outward trend, finding ways to stay in the city.
A NEW URBAN RENEWAL PARADIGM
Three years later, we were gone, back to apartment house living. It was too much “pioneerism.” The neighborhood was in a state of flux. Our area of the Upper West Side was under intense pressure from the thousands of legitimately angry West Side residents displaced for Lincoln Center and Lincoln Towers to the south. We were on the southernmost block of the West Side Urban Renewal area that uniquely called for a combination of brownstone conservation on the midblocks and new apartment-house construction on the avenues. This plan was promoted by the City Planning Commission, under chairman James Felt, in contrast to the Moses total-clearance pattern. Here, primarily the avenues were cleared and replaced with both public housing and high-rise, economically mixed apartment houses; the midblock brownstones were, for the most part, spared. These were the same quality brownstones Moses declared irredeemable elsewhere. This was a new urban renewal model, new for New York City and, in fact, for the country.
The AIA Guide notes:
The concepts that emerged were radically different from those of earlier renewal efforts. Exploitation of the highest possible rental scales was abandoned. Clearance and rebuilding from scratch, once the only redevelopment tools, were combined with rehabilitation and renovation, particularly of the basically sound side-street brownstone row houses. Steps were taken to ensure an economic and social mix within the district by providing not only separate low-rent projects but also low-rent families within middle-income developments. Finally, the plan provided for phased development from West 97th Street south to encourage the relocation of on-site tenants.2
The idea of a neighborhood of mixed-income housing really appealed to us. But understandable unrest on the part of displaced low-income families to the south had resulted in frequent protests, community conflict, and personal unease. Hundreds of displacees were now demanding replacement housing.
Urban renewal never produced new quantity as much as it destroyed old. The bulk of what was built, in this case Lincoln Towers just north of Lincoln Center and most of the West Side Urban Renewal area, was intentionally for the middle class, beyond the financial reach of the displaced poor. Keeping the middle class in the city was the avowed purpose. Thus, the legitimate pressure for more low-income housing made life difficult and unpleasant for many pioneering young families. The tensions, heated community meetings, and angry protests were unsettling, to say the least. Neighborhood stabilization was difficult to achieve. An overall tension in the community impeded the potential for community spirit and comfortable integration. Crime was already a problem. All this discouraged us.
It was a particularly painful situation for me, already juggling full-time work at the newspaper with motherhood at a time when this combination was not common and very difficult. The idea, so accepted today, of taking a few years out of a career to stay home with young children was for me not an option. I would never have gotten my job back. Some of my editors were already leery of having a working mother as a reporter. I was the first at the New York Post since World War II. Other women reporters were married, but the only other one with children was the fashion editor and she was a grandmother. I did, however, find ways to restrain my career in order to give me more time with my kids. Feature assignments allowed me to leave home late in the morning or come home early in the afternoon. Occasionally, I persuaded an editor to let me write the story at home. I also had wonderful child care, but our babysitter even felt unsafe taking the children to the playground during the day.
My mother lived around the corner, frequently visited my kids, but she, too, was uncomfortable walking with them in the neighborhood. The accumulated tensions were too much. I was confident that in another decade, the neighborhood would be fabulous, but in the meantime, we had two daughters to raise and a life to lead. We couldn’t wait. I was correct about the neighborhood eventually being fabulous. I was off by only a couple of years. It took a little longer than a decade, but, for sure, today the area’s an established winner.
THE ERA OF FEAR
It is easy to forget the well-founded fears we lived with in the New York of the 1970s. Crime seemed rampant. Fear was the emotion of the day. It motivated many residents to move away. The 1970s saw the explosion of drugs, especially crack.
Gold necklaces were torn off pedestrians. Handbags were snatched, giving rise to the popularity of the shoulder bag. Young kids had the sneakers they were carrying taken away from them as they traveled to and from school. In parks, kids were known to have their bikes taken out from under them by menacing kids. Flower boxes were emptied or taken in total. Cars were constantly broken into or stolen. And bikes were an immediate invitation to disappearance even if locked with a heavy chain. These were facts of life all New Yorkers lived with, not just pioneering brownstoners. But despite the hurdles, slowly but surely, more families were buying brownstones and were taking the risk.
Not us. We tried but wanted out. We jumped at an opportunity in a wonderful Central Park West apartment house, one of the Art Deco twin towers that makes the Central Park West skyline famous. Back to traditional door-man apartment-house living. We sold the brownstone at a loss and have not moved since. That was 1972.
We had experienced petty crime firsthand. Most was nonthreatening. Prowlers on the roof. Unsuccessful break-in attempts. Stolen bikes and plants. But the worst occurrence I recorded in the following story. Ironically, this style of the firsthand story became a New York City journalistic art form in the 1970s—writers detailing their personal encounter with crime. In the New York of today, this experience isn’t remotely anticipated.
It might seem strange, but the following incident was not what caused our departure. It was more of an accumulation of things—disappointment in the neighborhood, the hostilities and tensions in the community, the difficulties raising young children under tense conditions, and, of course, daily fear. But many families remained undaunted, and some neighbors and friends from those days are still in place and happily so. And although the following occurrence did not drive us out, it was indeed traumatic.
“Mugged: A Victim’s Story”
New York Post Daily Magazine, February 6, 1971
“You’ve now had the prototypical New York City experience. You’ve totally committed yourselves to remaining here and raising your children here. You’ve renovated a brownstone and now you’ve been mugged.”——A Friend.
It is the ultimate fear we all live with in this city, the fear of being mugged. It is the nightmare that all New Yorkers shared but until it happens to you, it remains just an abstraction, something you’ve heard about or read about, something that happened to someone else.
Then it happens to you and you discover that the reality is more brutal, more psychologically devastating than you imagined possible. You know it could have been worse physically, you know you could have been killed. But you can’t imagine how anything could jar your psyche more.
It happened to me. I know.
It was a weekday evening. My husband and I had just come out of an apartment house on 86th St. between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. The hour was 11:30. We had only a three-minute walk to our house around the corner on 87th. It was snowing slightly. The ground was slippery. We walked carefully, focusing on the ground.
Eighty-sixth is a major crosstown street, rarely deserted, always plenty of cars and buses passing by. Upper West Side residents hardly concern themselves with the major thoroughfares; it is the side streets, like the one we live on, that we worry about. They are frequently deserted. Anyone with normal city fears would anticipate a mugger lurking in the shadows.
But we were on 86th and there were several pedestrians not far away. We saw two youths walking toward us, one about 5-5, the other about 5-9, both black. The tall one wore sunglasses. I thought of nothing at the sight of them except that I had to turn slightly to pass them and that I should be careful not to slip.
Suddenly they were right in front of us. I don’t even remember falling, just landing. I was apparently pushed with such force that there wasn’t even time to try to break the fall by instinctively turning to the side.
I landed squarely on my back, with the back of my head and spine hitting hardest. I didn’t lose consciousness and as I started to get up I saw my husband fighting with our assailants. I screamed like I never thought I knew how, so loud it was heard on the 19th floor of a nearby apartment house.
They hadn’t laid a hand on my husband when they pushed me down. In fact, he hardly realized what had happened until he saw the short one pick up the bag I dropped and start running. Instinctively he went for him, yelling the profanities of an outraged husband. They fought. My husband doesn’t recall the mugger putting up much of a fight.
Then the second youth jumped on my husband and it was at that point I screamed. I spotted a police car passing in front of us on 86th. The policemen heard the scream, came running. The muggers fled in opposite directions, the pocketbook left behind.
The police gave up the chase after only a block or so and I wonder if they really tried hard enough to catch the pair. The muggers had a very slight lead. They could have been caught. But I also wonder if I can blame them for not trying harder.
So many times police have risked their necks to catch such people, only to discover that the victims, fearful of reprisal, refuse to press charges. How did they know I would have gone to court? Is the policeman wrong for feeling, “I don’t want to get killed either.” Or, to complain that he arrests criminals only to see them back on the street in a short time doing their thing?
. . . I have written about victims of all kinds of crime, heard their agonies, listened to their demands for action. I have wrestled with the issues of crime and justice. Still I have no answers, just questions.
The whole incident was over in less than five minutes. The police offered to drive us to the hospital. I declined, thinking my injuries were not serious. All I wanted was to go home and get into bed. They drove us around the corner. I called a doctor friend and inquired what I should do for myself. He advised a hospital for X-rays, just to be sure.
The aches and pains were beginning to surface but their severity still hadn’t occurred to me. In the next few hours I was to discover a fractured skull, badly bruised spine, jaw knocked out of line, bleeding tongue and elbow, stiff neck and a score of minor injuries. My husband suffered a few bruises from the fight.
Twice before I have had to go to hospital emergency rooms but never at night. It was already 12:30. We went to Mt. Sinai. It seemed to me to be a slow night. Not many people waiting, no accident or other mugging victims. I watched the others. A child with a painful earache, sobbing in his mother’s arms, waited the same hour-and-a half that I did. Another child and a woman had fevers. A mother having a bad asthma attack was accompanied by her young children. All were black or Puerto Rican. I was struck by the thought that the poor rely on the emergency rooms of our hospitals the way the middle class relies on family doctors.
My turn finally came, X-rays were taken, a fracture noted, a neurologist called, a decision made to admit me for observation and tests. There was one bed available in the whole hospital. By 4 a.m. I was in it and my husband finally went home.
The head nurse came in, a warm, sympathetic girl who just wanted to assure me they would do their best to make me comfortable. Suddenly, everything finally began to sink in and I broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. She let me talk it out. I felt better but the full reality of what had happened less than five hours earlier was just beginning to register. I had become a statistic, a victim of crime.
I spent the next five days in the hospital and fortunately no blood clotting or other possible effects of a fracture occurred. All the tests indicated there would be no after-effects.
Not for one minute in those five days and for several after I got home did my mind wander from what had happened. I kept seeing that face, that blank, cold expression of the man who pushed me. It is now just an impersonal face, just an expression. I doubt I could identify either assailant. It’s like every B crime movie you’ve ever seen where there’s a police line-up and a witness tried desperately to identify the criminal.
Everything about the incident ran counter to what we anticipate will happen. I had never worried about walking at night with my husband. It is only women alone who think they must be extra careful. You think if it happens, someone will come up and grab your bag or demand you turn it over. You promise yourself you won’t resist, to save your neck. I never had the chance.
As I tried desperately to drive the details from my mind, I realized we never really expect this kind of thing to happen to us. The fear of it has become woven into the fabric of this city’s life. We continue to think it will always be the other guy. We refuse to accept the fact that this city can be dangerous. It can’t happen here. But it can and it does.
The reactions, concern and questions of friends were interesting. Immediately they asked, “Are you sorry you’re still living in the city?” They know what my husband and I went through to renovate our brownstone. They know the agonizing process of deciding to totally commit yourself, your family, your resources to a community still fraught with risk and aggravated urban problems.
They know how desperately we wanted to be able to live in this city. Yet I know my children, now only 1 and 3 years of age, will never have the freedom to enjoy this city as I did as a child. And I am sad for them.
I have friends who have made the move out. They called, too. Interestingly enough, only one said, “So when are you moving out?” Others were more honest. One told me of a child in her neighborhood who was mysteriously kidnapped while playing on the lawn but fortunately released a few blocks away. “There are problems everywhere,” she said . . .
The genuine concern of my city friends was overwhelming. It was almost as if it had happened to them. In a sense it has. They have been brought one step close to the reality. Many people reacted by saying we should all walk around with guns in our pockets. Yes, the same people who wanted all firearms banished in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations were now telling me I should carry a gun.
To the first such comment, my husband observed: “I would have shot my foot off going for it.” Even if it were not a frightening solution, it would remain an impractical one. We never would have had the chance to reach for a gun. And would we have wanted to risk shooting a bystander, ourselves or even our assailants? . . .
I don’t know where it will all lead. Were our assailants drug addicts? It seems likely. Even if they weren’t we know that the habit’s cost is the genesis of much of our city’s crime. God knows, we are not doing enough about that problem.
I haven’t yet tried to resume my normal routine, which kept me traveling around the city a good part of each day. Soon I will be physically up to it, but God I’m scared. I have ventured out of my house a few times, mostly to walk my dog. I know I will only feel safe when I have that dog at my side. The fear has not left me. I wonder if it ever will.
Now, like so many people, young and old, I move around the city at all hours of the night without fear, ride the subways, always finding many people around. Safety, or the feeling of safety, comes with the numbers of people around us. If you hadn’t lived through the 1970s in New York, it is easy to wonder what all the safety talk is about.
Until the 1973 oil crisis, the trickling trend of returning young urban settlers went almost unnoticed. Experts declared the numbers of returnees insignificant. Statistically, they were correct. But meaningful urban change evolves only slowly and doesn’t even show up statistically until the trend has dramatically progressed. Thus, experts were oblivious to the on-the-ground shift that was definitely occurring—until, that is, the oil shock of 1973 when the questioning of the auto-dependent lifestyle began in earnest. This was a good example of a totally spontaneous trend, the kind that undermines highly developed, inflexible official plans. No plan can anticipate cataclysmic events that are bound to occur. Questioning the car-centric lifestyle until then was almost sacrilegious. The automobile industry had by then reshaped the country’s lifestyle values.
By the 1970s, as noted, the trend of returning urban residents was gaining visibility but did not accelerate and gain much media notice until the late 1970s or early 1980s. The Brownstone Revival Movement had already begun in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Cobble Hill where Everett and Evelyn Ortner had organized the Brownstone Revival Committee in 1965. Their newsletter, the Brownstoner, inspired like-minded urban pioneers around the city. Dedicated brownstoners banded together to beat back urban renewal programs that targeted brownstones for demolition. They cajoled the banks into giving mortgages, the same banks, in fact, that had earlier redlined their neighborhoods. They also harassed speculators to prevent stripping of precious ornamentation and proselytized among friends about the brownstone life. In a May 1973 article about books that had just been published aimed at the brownstone renovator, I wrote, “In the early ’60s the ‘brownstoners’ were called New York’s modern pioneers, long on guts but short on sanity. Later they were seen as the most hopeful sign that the city would not lose all of its middle class to the sprawling suburbs and as—maybe, just maybe—the ones with the best idea of how to live in a city of vacancy decontrol and spiraling rents.”3
The state of the Upper West Side in the 1970s had its parallels in other cities where slum clearance had not totally erased the nineteenth-century building form—whether brick or limestone row houses, clapboard or brick triple-deckers, or freestanding Victorians with back and front yards separated from neighbors only by driveways to rear-yard garages. In 1970 the first Back to City Conference was held in New York. Activists attended from eighty-two cities across the country, representing reviving historic neighborhoods. They compared stories, shared problems, and learned lessons from each other’s successes and failures. Most important, they discovered they were not alone. Clearly, something bigger than their individual efforts was going on. Small efforts, almost unnoticeable, were evolving around the country, the beginning of a big, in fact monumental, national shift. The event led to formation of the national group Back to the City, Inc., an informal network of reviving communities. In January 1974, I wrote in part:
For years, urban loyalists have been predicting that those fresh air and free school seekers would return. Well, it’s happening, although slowly for now. But if there’s one new factor ready to turn the current trickle into a full-fledged trend it’s fuel.
In short, the energy crisis is stemming the exodus and bringing suburban residents back. The two-car family with the roomy oil-heat dream house, the shopping center miles away and children with distant friends and schools is “going bananas,” reports one former Bronx resident seeking to return from Long Island.
7.2 Park Slope brownstones, probably the signature housing style of the borough of Brooklyn. Ron Shiffman.
THE WEST SIDE: THE HAPPENING PLACE
The Upper West Side reflected the best and the worst of what was happening in New York in the 1970s. It was one of the most concentrated Robert Moses battlegrounds but also in the vanguard of incremental renewal. This area was a trendsetter nationally for row-house living in a similar way that SoHo was for loft living. The New York City lifestyle, personified here, made good media copy. Brownstone living, especially the “urban duplex,” was making it into national magazines. My editors recognized what was happening and knew I was living in the midst of it. They assigned me to write at length about the West Side.
Today, the West Side is actually chic, a shocking development for longtime residents like myself. But in 1974, it was far from it. In fact, you had to be a keen observer to recognize the precursors of good things to come. In December 1974 I wrote:
The area seems to spawn more urban chauvinists per square foot, more promoters of community spirit and defenders of have-not groups than any other neighborhood. It seems, as well, to contain more activists in far-flung causes, more aspiring politicians, more improvement groups and, certainly, more beards and blue jeans than any area outside Greenwich Village.
Most West Siders will recite as if by rote the same litany of advantages that makes their neighborhood so appealing—sound housing of every kind, sometimes even at rational prices; excellent transportation including two subway lines and a variety of buses; ethnic diversity that is not only reflected in the faces and accents of residents but in the local stores, restaurants and cultural groups; small playgrounds and large parks; museums, uncrowded movie theaters and of course, Lincoln Center.
Back then, West Siders lamented the loss of local businesses, the pushing out of more low-income residents, and the unending influx of the rich and famous who do not share the civic activism that was once the West Side trademark. Movies were getting crowded. Tourists seemed to be everywhere, and the idea that, as one observer noted at the time, “the city seems smaller here” was a fading memory.
Historically, the West Side has always been “the other side of town.” It was always twenty years or so behind the East Side in development trends, and it wasn’t until mansions and townhouses spread over the East Side that the developers gave serious attentions to the West Side north of Fifty-ninth Street.
When in 1880 Singer Sewing machine heir Edward S. Clark began construction of the city’s first luxury apartment house—a chateau of gables, bay windows, and incomparable detail at Seventy-second Street and Central Park West—observers teased that he was building so far into the country that he might as well be in Dakota Territory. The name Dakota stuck, and today it is still considered one of the city’s most exclusive addresses.
Soon after, the Ninth Avenue El (elevated train) was completed, opening the West Side to the first of many waves of upwardly mobile middle-class families and the beginning of serious development. Row houses were built in great numbers for single-family elegance through the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century. Gracious high-rise apartment houses—not as opulent as the Dakota—started going up slowly on Broadway after the turn of the century with the Beaux Arts Ansonia at Seventh-third Street and the more sparsely ornamented Apthorp at Seventh-ninth Street and Belnord at Eighty-sixth Street. By the 1920s and ’30s, Central Park West, West End Avenue, and Riverside Drive were lined with fashionable high-rises that remain the housing anchors of the entire area.
After World War II, as the middle-class Irish and Jewish occupants moved farther north to the Bronx, to the East Side, or to suburbia, brownstones were subdivided to house waves of new immigrants—blacks from the South and the West Indies, Hispanics from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America. Because the units were small, overcrowded, high in price, but low in maintenance, many rapidly deteriorated.
CATACLYSMIC CHANGE KICKS IN
Then, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, came the beginnings of the city’s two largest urban renewal programs—the twelve-block (fifty-three-acre) Lincoln Center and the twenty-block West Side Urban Renewal Area between Eighty-seventh and Ninety-seventh Streets—and construction of two large-scale middle-income developments, Lincoln Towers at West End Avenue in the Sixties and Park West Village at Central Park to Amsterdam, Ninety-seventh to One Hundredth Streets.
When I referenced this urban renewal area in my 1974 articles, I didn’t mention Robert Moses’s connection to Urban Renewal policies up to that time. But I did note in my article a major population shift taking place: “Co-operative conversions of pre-war high-rises started in the 1960s, anchoring the professional middle-class that had moved there for the large rent-controlled apartments. The brownstone movement spread north and south from and west of the Urban Renewal Area, reclaiming some of the most solidly built housing in the city for young middle-class families seeking space, elegance, value and backyards.”
The article noted that the scores of low-income residents displaced by assorted Urban Renewal projects were now concentrating along Amsterdam Avenue and north to the Manhattan Valley area, 107th to 110th Streets, Central Park to Broadway. Many also relocated into the ten public housing projects containing 4,628 apartments scattered around the area or in buildings leased by the Housing Authority and rented to low-income families. The West Side’s low-rent apartment supply filled up, and many displaced families moved to other boroughs.
More than just the housing supply was rapidly changing when I observed this scene in the mid-1970s. Seven new public schools had been built since 1960. Private schools, too, had built new facilities or expanded old ones. And there were now seventeen day-care centers, including four Head Start programs. Block associations had planted trees; Broadway malls had been relandscaped. Playgrounds had been rebuilt.
Signs of renewal were showing more and more in the commercial fabric of the West Side as well. The impact of the women’s movement was evident in the growing number of entrepreneurial women opening the small, local businesses appearing on the scene. This trend—women-owned businesses—was new, and it was emerging early, as many trends did, on the Upper West Side. Restaurants and bars, in the blocks from the Eighties through the Nineties along the avenues, offered live jazz and had become favorite spots for the steadily growing black middle class moving into the area.
Slowly but surely, theater groups were taking hold, with Godspell in its fourth year at the Promenade Theater and Sgt. Pepper at the newly renovated Beacon. New restaurants gained a loyal local following. “We won’t eat anywhere but on the West Side, where prices are still reasonable,” I quoted one resident saying.
In the second of the two articles I wrote on the Upper West Side, I focused on the problems. I wrote in part:
Behind the facade of renewal and renaissance that covers great chunks of the West Side from 59th to 110th St., there are areas of great discontent and frustration.
The “great sore” of the West Side—the Single Room Occupancy-Welfare Hotel problem—floods the area with unsupervised former mental patients, alcoholics, junkies, multi-problem families, and leaves the elderly vulnerable and the younger families scared.
A 1969 city-wide study of SRO buildings indicated that almost 50 per cent of the entire city’s SRO tenants live on the West Side, occupying some 25,000 apartment units between 74th and 110th Streets. Although the hotels Hamilton and Hargrave have been converted to housing for the elderly and the Kimberly at 73rd and Broadway is vacant, not much has changed in five years.
The West Side Urban Renewal Program was initiated in the 1950s as the nation’s model for economic integration within buildings. Promoted by Planning Commission chair James Felt as an alternative to Moses’s clearance strategy, the plan had been stumbling past the half-completion mark with a few years of stormy community debate. Some groups called for increasing the proportion of low-income housing. Others claimed any increase would cause the community to tip into a slum or ghetto. The argument was whether 20 or 30 percent was the right amount of low-income housing. And while the conflict was enough to cause some of the bitterest community battles the neighborhood had seen in years, federal housing funds stopped and made things worse.
The spreading phenomenon of the fast-food chains was another issue of debate. At one point a rumor circulated in the area around Seventy-ninth Street and Columbus Avenue that a McDonald’s would open. “The community was up in arms,” said the late councilman and then congressman Ted Weiss. “Five years ago a McDonald’s would have been considered a neighborhood improvement. Today it’s an anathema.”
Fast-food chains have become an accepted way of life today in almost all urban neighborhoods. Now they are not as threatening as in the time I was writing these articles. A generous selection of local food outlets of every scale and price exists and flourishes.
Crime, of course, was a constant worry, but statistics don’t seem to affect the way people live with the reality of crime as much as people’s “feel” for it does. As more stores stayed open late, as new restaurants proliferated and nightlife in general picked up, many residents felt the community had gotten safer. One guide was the newsstands. Only a few years earlier, none stayed open late except at Seventy-second Street. Now they were open late up and down Broadway.
The article also noted the small-town feel of residents:
Consistently, when you speak to residents about what’s good and bad on the West Side, they will tell you everything that’s happening within a small radius of their home. They know who lives above and below them, those their children meet in the playground. They organize food co-ops or babysitting services and they know the local shopkeepers as well as their neighbors.
Actor Jordan Charney, who lives in a 10-story apartment house on 74th between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, talks of “the marvelous shops offering home-made things” and “the assortment of people going into their own business.”
“Lincoln Center has pushed problems uptown,” Charney says, “hiding them a little better because they’re out of my neighborhood. Up there it’s as scary as it used to be when we moved here seven years ago.”
Boundaries differed. Problems varied. But a do-it-yourself state of mind pervaded each subcommunity. Whether it was tree planting, day care, playgrounds, block-by-block security guards, or housing problems, West Siders didn’t wait for City Hall to solve them. Residents lived with the realities of the problems; alternatives were less desirable. Sometime in the 1970s and ’80s, however, a real upward shift began. Government money for big projects had stopped flowing, as it had in the heyday of Urban Renewal in the 1950s. The city was flirting with bankruptcy. The state was suffering serious financial setbacks, and the federal government was no friendlier to New York than in the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” 1970s days. The cessation of the big projects gave license to the smaller ones to advance. No one thing is identifiable. Instead, an accumulation of successive steps occurred. It was a clear case of incremental change, if ever there was one.
A variety of new stores opened, more upscale now, a sign that someone thought the area was an underserved market to which nonneighborhood shoppers would also come. New children’s clothing stores appeared, a clear reflection of the increasing number of new families. Until then, one small children’s department store, Morris Brothers, had been the sole outpost for shopping parents.4 East Siders began to consider the West Side’s private schools for their children. An assortment of new banal apartment houses went up across from Lincoln Center, a sign that big developers decided the district had value. And young singles and families kept buying and fixing up the brownstones not destroyed by Urban Renewal.
THE LINCOLN CENTER MYTH
Credentialed experts often attribute urban regeneration of any kind to the official plans and developments of the day. Most planners and government officials and observers don’t give credence to the gradual block-by-block and business-by-business improvements that mark organic incrementalism. They can’t recognize it until it is full-blown. They insist that ad hoc change is insignificant. They are wrong on all counts. One needs to recognize the often small precursors of positive change to understand its emerging appearance. The precursors were in abundance on the West Side, as all the gradual changes already mentioned indicate.
According to conventional wisdom, Lincoln Center was the catalyst for regeneration of the West Side. This is a myth. Simple observation illustrates how this was not the case. If this were true, renewal would only have occurred in the late 1960s and ’70s on the West Side around Lincoln Center, or in proximity to other big new construction projects. This was definitely not the case. SoHo, the Lower East Side, areas of the South Bronx, and the many areas of brownstone Brooklyn showed early signs of nascent rebirth at the same time as the Upper West Side. Positive change was bubbling up in small doses all over the city. It was observable, anecdotal, and nowhere yet ready to be measurable. And, indeed, it was happening in many traditional and historic neighborhoods all over the country. Thus, experts and the press did not recognize its significance as the beginning of a shift. They couldn’t imagine this happening without a big catalyst like Lincoln Center.
Ignoring where else regeneration was slowly taking hold, the myth prevails that Lincoln Center rejuvenated the West Side. In reality, it did not. The rebound of the Upper West Side and scattered neighborhoods throughout the city was people driven by the vanguard of urban pioneers. Value-hunting brownstoners and apartment dwellers were attracted to the solidly built historic building stock and middle-income apartment towers. They were resisting the expected move to the suburbs. In neighborhoods farther out, way off the radar screen of city experts, immigrants were filling largely vacant housing where people had moved out. With them came new businesses as well. The Russians went to Brighton Beach and the Syrians to Atlantic Avenue, both in Brooklyn. The Chinese filled the Lower East Side. The Koreans went to Astoria, Queens. In each neighborhood, the new residents sparked a gradual rebirth that is explosive today.
Trends always start small, almost invisibly. Values and lifestyle choices brought new settlers to the West Side. Lincoln Center was clearly a sign that government and financial institutions thought the West Side was worthy of reinvestment in big government-supported projects. But what Lincoln Center really did was bring East Siders and suburbanites to the West Side in the evening—all visitors who had been afraid to venture into the area because of its reputation for crime and poverty.
Visitors, whether from other neighborhoods or out of town, are never enough to spark rebirth. Local residents and businesses do the spade work, reenergize a place or district, give a place character, and make visitors comfortable. Visitors follow locals in the process; they are never catalysts for the rebirth process. Years later, after the Upper West Side had turned dramatically upscale, many of those visitors came there to live, too.
If anything, Lincoln Center and, later, Lincoln Towers made rejuvenation more difficult, if one understands rejuvenation as the gradual return of young, middle-income families and new businesses to a stabilized, existing population mix with new buildings fitting in with existing ones. Enlivened street life, diversity of population and activity, and social interaction follow that new population. That was not what followed the development of Lincoln Center. What did follow were several large new developments, including a series of dull residential towers across Broadway. Together with Lincoln Center, they do not add up to a definition of natural, positive change. In fact, unrest caused by the displacement of seven thousand families and eight hundred businesses5 in twelve blocks demolished for Lincoln Center complicated life and made it unsettling and stressful for longtime residents and new.
It is worth pausing for a moment to look further at why Lincoln Center is a signature Moses creation. This is difficult to do now without offending many good people who have worked hard to make this world-renowned seat of culture a great success. But that success is due to the content and programs, not the vessel they come in. As soon as a critical word is said about the physical design of the complex, such people take offense, even though they had nothing to do with designing it, only in making it succeed as an artistic center despite itself.
First, it must be said loud and clear that the institutions of Lincoln Center have become star performers on the city’s cultural stage. But that is about cultural programming, not bricks and mortar and urban design values. Paul Goldberger wrote a very perceptive Sky Line column in the New Yorker, “West Side Fixer-Upper: New Ideas for Lincoln Center That Don’t Involve Dynamite,” giving high marks to the first steps in a planned redesign. He credited architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro with “figuring out ways to weave the atoll back into the fabric of the city.” He noted, “There were complaints about the facilities at Lincoln Center from the beginning.” But more significantly, he hit at the heart of the matter:
But the raison d’etre for Lincoln Center was dubious from the beginning. . . . Moses didn’t care much for opera, or theater, or symphony orchestras. He just figured that they could serve as a magnet for development. Using culture in this way was a new idea in the fifties, although almost everything else about Lincoln Center was stuck in the past. As a piece of design, it was as retrograde as the halls that it replaced—and much less successful. . . .
The idea of a cultural campus set apart from the city never made much sense, even though Lincoln Center did, to be fair, promote the urban renewal effect that Robert Moses intended. The neighborhood would probably have been gentrified without Lincoln Center, of course, but hardly in the same way, or on the same timetable. . . .
Lincoln Center has sometimes seemed less the vibrant source of the neighborhood’s energy than the empty hole in the middle of the doughnut. . . . Lincoln Center reflected [Moses’s] social philosophy, which was on the side of public subsidies for middle-class amenities and against the visible presence of the poor.6
Centers, like other big stand-alone separatist projects, breed more new development mislabeled revitalization. But more than anything, they continue nibbling away at traditional streets and diverse uses, the ingredients of real places. Here, too, Moses (in partnership with John Rockefeller) led the way, as Martin Filler notes: “This cultural one-stop shopping center launched a nationwide boom in performing- and visual-arts complexes.”7
Moses was a separator, segregator, and isolator, designing the world for the car. He was a “centerist”—meaning cultural (starting with Lincoln Center), retail, industrial, sports, entertainment centers—isolating uses within the city, suburb, or town in a way that disconnects them from the rest of daily life, creating islands of singular activity in the urban fabric. Again, he created the model, and the nation followed.
The Moses pattern undermines the potential of vibrant, vital, economically and socially robust, integrated, and connected “places” in a city, suburb, or town. And it is a form of growth that annihilates and replaces versus replenishes and adds. Communities throughout the country today are trying to reconnect what that separating era of planning destroyed. Now, Lincoln Center, cited as one of Moses’s great achievements, has embarked on a billion-dollar effort to remodel itself in a more urbanistically connected way, undoing Moses’s isolationist vision.
Lincoln Center is a good place to understand the Moses philosophy, even though its widespread popularity as a cultural destination blinds people to the underlying fallacies of its creation. Understanding what was wrong with the barracks-style high-rise housing projects is easy today, especially since so many of them have been and continue to be blown up and rebuilt around the country. And widespread understanding exists more than ever that massive highway building and disinvestment in mass transit were the fatal domestic flaws of the second half of the twentieth century. But there are few signs of public or official understanding of the antiurban nature of cultural centers or, for that matter, entertainment centers, sports complexes, or similar concentrations of singular uses. Superblocks, whether for residential towers or entertainment, are disruptive and destructive in a city. Robert Moses launched his approach to city building in a big way on the West Side.
WEST SIDE STORY
Elizabeth Yampierre’s family displacement saga was recounted earlier. Yampierre actually lived on the site, known as San Juan Hill, where the musical West Side Story purportedly takes place. A number of scenes in the movie were actually filmed on those streets. The movie’s producers had persuaded Moses to hold off demolition a short time while they used it as a stage set.
Looking at the stills of those scene shots now is startling to anyone who thinks what Moses was clearing was really a slum by any honest standard. Not that deterioration wasn’t clear, and not that living conditions weren’t seriously deficient. But if one studies the photos of empty tenements and small apartment houses with windows already missing and evidence of the accelerated decay that sets in once urban renewal is declared, it is hard not to question how so much reusable, renovatable fabric could be consigned to the garbage dump. Many comparable buildings today have been converted to upscale apartment houses and condominiums. As Filler also wrote, “Today, that 19th-century housing would be gentrified before you could say Jane Jacobs, but in the 1950s, tabula-rasa development was standard operating procedure.”8
THE REAL DRAW OF THE WEST SIDE
The traditional mix of dense and architecturally masterful West Side buildings experienced a real image problem during the era of massive slum clearance and new project building. The incomparable prewar apartment houses of Central Park West, West End Avenue, and Riverside Drive north of Lincoln Center had never lost their appeal, although they had lost their status as chic. For a long time the “chic” label applied only to the Upper East Side. But the architectural appeal, solid construction, and size of apartment rooms could not be matched by anything built after World War II.
In time, the West Side became overchic, and for many longtime West Siders, it lost its charm. Real estate values are off the charts. The area is so overrun by tourists at the southern end around Lincoln Center, where I live, that little local flavor remains. Mall stores dominate. This is one of the city’s worst traffic-congestion hot spots. More and more superwealthy people have moved in and brought their sense of entitlement. Three lanes of traffic on Central Park West, for example, are sacrificed for angled parking for private cars of the policemen and double-parking (sometimes triple-parking) for private cars and limousines at the Trump International Hotel and the new superluxury condominium 15 Central Park West. This new addition to the West Side opened in 2007 at such through-the-roof sales prices that the area was dubbed “the new Gold Coast.”
Essential qualities hold strong. Some things are almost immutable because a large swath of the area was declared a historic district in 1990. Actually, several historic districts cover a lot of the Upper West Side. The largest is the Central Park West district from Sixty-second to Ninety-sixth Streets, with parts of Columbus Avenue included. A scattering of smaller districts is found along Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. Effectively, nothing within those designated areas can get torn down or altered without approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That is not to say things don’t get torn down that shouldn’t and that new large-scale buildings of mediocre design don’t get built. But the basic effectiveness of the area’s landmark protection is clear. Enormous change has transpired on the Upper West Side, but its essential physical character has been sustained. The glaring compromises remain isolated and contained. That is the fundamental virtue of designated historic districts in the first place. Change evolves within the context of authenticity, a good definition of regeneration.
POSITIVE CHANGE, NEGATIVE CHANGE
The West Side exhibits the result of two kinds of change—change that is regeneration and change that is replacement. This kind of duality can be found in cities around the country. Here it is dramatically pronounced because of the large scale of both kinds of change.
The substantial areas of the West Side most dynamically regenerated are those with the large stock of renewed brownstone and limestone row houses, small-scale and large-scale prewar apartment buildings, and the varied assortment of combined residential and commercial structures that line the three primary commercial corridors. Then there are the replacement areas: Lincoln Center; the eight-building, 3,837-unit apartment complex of Lincoln Towers (Sixty-sixth to Seventieth along West End Avenue); the six-building Park West Village (Ninety-seventh to One Hundredth from Central Park to Columbus); and a number of public housing projects north of Ninety-sixth Street that totally replaced a diversified fabric. Robert Moses had declared each of these areas a “slum.” One has to question how much of a slum these areas could have been when comparable assortments of diversified buildings that stood on the cleared and rebuilt sites are today significantly upgraded and regenerated.
The replacement projects have remained static—physically no different from when constructed under Urban Renewal. Granted that Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall has had to be rebuilt inside twice because of poor acoustics. The central plaza, too, was rebuilt, and recent years of creative outdoor programming have dramatically enlivened that space. The open-air band shell of Damrosch Park at the southwest corner was added after completion. But Lincoln Center remains the isolated and isolating island of culture it was meant to be. And while sections of Lincoln Center are being redesigned to connect to the vibrant area across Broadway, no attempt appears to be in the planning to open up the west side of Lincoln Center that is walled off in the most hostile way possible from the public housing projects on the other side of West End Avenue. North and south along West End Avenue across from the public housing, street-level retail can be found. A solid brick wall in the rear serves as both an impenetrable boundary and a break in that retail strip. Clearly, it was designed to be fortresslike.
The impact of Urban Renewal is probably more benign on the Upper West Side than in most other New York City neighborhoods. Several things explain this. To start, the area was a dense, rich fabric with a variegated texture that could sustain considerable loss without losing its essence. And considerable losses it did indeed sustain. Ironically, the large swaths of alleged slums that were demolished and rebuilt would be gentrified middle-class neighborhoods today. Additionally, the replacements, besides Lincoln Center, are an assortment of well-maintained and well-managed middle-and low-income developments. Over time, they have woven themselves into the surrounding community. Nevertheless, they represent big tears in what was and could be today an untorn urban fabric that could have had a diversified assortment of economically and socially mixed housing of every scale, national and local businesses, and varied institutions, simply more of what it already is in the regenerated areas.
Many neighborhoods and downtowns in New York and around the country are not so lucky. They have sustained too enormous a scale of clearance. From Bushwick in Brooklyn and the South Bronx to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville, Detroit, Buffalo, Charlotte, and others, only remnants are left. To regenerate by building on a modest remnant is possible but much more difficult. The cities regenerating the best today have the most traditional fabric left; the ones having the most clearance damage are experiencing the more difficult time. It is staggering to think of the damage done across the board to American cities after World War II in the name of progress.
With Lincoln Center, as had been true with the highways and housing towers, Moses created a template that would deceive the world into accepting the notion that this was a good way to redevelop cities—Moses style.