`Motley but marvelous'

IT is said that everyone has his own New York. There are many New Yorks, and you may love them all, but there is only one New York that is your New York. New York to me is first and foremost the Upper West Side, from 72nd Street - that wide, cheerful avenue of shops and restaurants - to 122nd, where the Manhattan School of Music fills the air with sounds of sopranos, pianos, and French horns.

A friend who has just come back from London remarked that whenever she returns to New York and sees its buildings in the distance, she suddenly feels she is coming back to reality. ``This is reality,'' she thinks, ``and the interim time has just been a dream.'' And this is a person who claims not to like New York! But she's an Upper West Sider, and they all have a certain basic loyalty. Anyone who has lived on the Upper West Side loves New York, whether he or she will admit it or not.

We first came here in 1948 for a two-year stay, then returned to Philadelphia, telling everyone how awful New York City was. In three years we were back to stay; we hadn't realized how deeply we had fallen in love with it all.

My first inkling that the Upper West Side was to become a part of me came not long after our arrival. On a summer evening my husband and I started to walk up Broadway from 85th. The sidewalks were teeming with people. All the shops, delicatessens, and movie theaters were ablaze with light. The feeling of life and activity was overwhelming. That motley quality that makes the Upper West Side what it is today was present then, too.

Though the section was still mainly a mix of Europeans, Hispanics had begun to arrive in large numbers, and blacks and Asians were present. There was a sprinkling of almost every race and nationality; a delightful mixture of languages and accents flowed past us.

These were not rich, proper people, such as you found on the East Side. The feeling was much more democratic. I felt good being in such an egalitarian place, aware of an unusual degree of tolerance and acceptance.

Broadway winding its broad way through the Upper West Side is a large part of what gives the area its extraordinary character. Fifth Avenue is all very well; New York must have it to be New York. But Broadway - variegated, homely, archaic, bustling Broadway - there's nothing like it anywhere. May the developers never ruin it. (They are trying, even as I write.)

The other vitally important attraction on the Upper West Side is Riverside Drive, along with Riverside Park below it and the wide blue Hudson beyond. The East Side has nothing to compare with this.

The second time we came to New York we lived farther up, on 105th Street in that beautiful block, now landmarked, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. In summer I took our little girl almost every night to Riverside Drive (even though we had been in Riverside Park much of the day, enjoying its playgrounds and acres of grass and trees). We both recall fondly those evenings on the drive, leaning against the cool stone wall and gazing at the river through the tree-filled parkland stretching below, glimpsing an occasional freighter or tanker, or a shining sightseeing boat.

Then, looking north, we would admire George Washington's necklace sparkling splendidly above the waters. Behind us on the walk, the people kept strolling, their soft conversation a mix of tongues, languid and summery. There was often the scent of honeysuckle and privet hedge.

We are now living a half-block away from our former 105th Street apartment and can look down on it from our present lofty height. We're in one of those large, pre-World War II West End Avenue buildings where the walls are thick thick thick and you can play the piano and sing endlessly without harassment.

On a recent sunny Sunday morning I was in a cab going up the drive when the driver suddenly spoke up: ``Is there anything in this city more beautiful than this, lady?'' he asked, gesturing toward the river. ``Central Park. Fifth Avenue, the Village - they can have 'em! Riverside Drive, Riverside Park, the Hudson - they got 'em all beat! And nobody ever mentions all this! How come?''

It is indeed a mystery.

For some years I worked on Riverside Drive at the Interchurch Center, an office building across 120th Street from Riverside Church. I often walked to work via the drive. At that hour hardly anyone was about - just a few folks walking their dogs. I began my day with majestic trees, playful squirrels, and caroling birds. After years of coping with the subway, what a refreshing change!

An amazing joie de vivre, a sort of holiday spirit, pervades the Upper West Side, even amid the poverty that is very much a part of it. Our mixture now has changed: many more Hispanics, blacks, and Asians than previously, along with the academic community of Columbia University, always a continuing and predictable presence. Poverty and affluence live cheek by jowl.

Yes, it's motley but marvelous. But now we are getting new restaurants and more new restaurants. Small businesses that have been here for years are disappearing daily; their rents have suddenly quadrupled. And the condos are coming. Some have already reared their heads as far north as 96th Street, and they say it's only a question of time before they appear above 100th.

The time may come when Broadway will lose its miscellaneous, antique character. The one- and two-story buildings sandwiched in between the taller ones could disappear, and Broadway become as cavernous as Midtown. Sun and air, goodbye! The wealthy will come. It will be another East Side. They will tear up spacious Riverside Park and build more condos ``with river views.''

No, it can't be. They can't take my New York away! May it long remain the bustling and beautiful Upper West Side.

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