As I attended two concerts over the week-end at the 67th Street Armory, directly across the street from the building in which I grew up, I was inspired to think about how much the city has changed, in every way, during my lifetime. As a sheltered kid attending private school and living on 66th Street and Park Avenue during the 1950s and ‘60s, the Upper East Side was my village. It contained clean, small grocery stores, antique stores, a few restaurants along Lex, and fancy clothing and jewelry stores on Madison (which, like Fifth, was a two-way thoroughfare.)While I had a couple of friends who lived on 96th or 97th and Fifth, mostly I went no farther north than my piano lesson, on 91st and Lexington, which seemed like the upper edge of the known universe. The lower edge was, of course, Grand Central, from which we occasionally took the train to the country. My father’s apartment, in Stuy Town ,on 20th Street by the East River, was an alien place in an alien world, populated by scary looking kids roaming in packs. Except for visiting one friend at the Majestic, I never crossed Central Park to the Upper West Side.
When I graduated from college I moved to 92nd and Broadway, a completely new world of small shops and middle class residents. It felt like life in a new city. And then, after a brief detour to Brooklyn Heights, in the late 70s my wife and I bought the apartment at 86th and Central Park West where we live to this day. When we moved here, crime was rampant on many of the side streets near our home. Columbus Avenue held small local merchants: bakeries, bodegas, dry cleaners, drug stores. Amsterdam was littered with crack vials. And Broadway was a paradise of Old World cooking, smoked fish, linoleum, and independent bookstores.
Over the years, our neighborhood has changed, for both better and worse. The small shops where we knew the owners and they knew us are mostly (though not all) gone. The melting pot flavor is gone, and there are many more upscale bars, restaurants, and high rises. There is very little crime, and it is hard to remember the time when we put signs in our car window saying “No Radio!” (and the windows got broken anyway.) There are no crack vials on Amsterdam Avenue gathered around the pay phones where the dealers plied their trade.
The same thing has happened all over Manhattan. As crime has receded, and chain stores have proliferated, shopping in our neighborhood, or on the Upper East Side, or in Union Square, has grown more similar. So it is little surprise that real estate buyers who would once live ONLY between 59th and 86th Streets, between Fifth and Third, now look in Tribeca, and that those who wanted only the Upper West Side now look in Harlem. As for Central Park West, it has become a literal extension of Fifth and Park Avenues. As Manhattan has become safer, it has also lost much of the indigenous character which distinguished one area so strongly from another. Today the island is one large neighborhood with regional characteristics. You can walk around or ride the train at any hour of the day or night without fear.
I don’t miss the little village of my childhood, and I certainly don’t miss the crime ridden streets of my young adulthood. My kids grew up feeling at home all over New York. Cities evolve or die. For much of America, the last fifty years have left urban areas like donuts, their downtowns emptied or ghetto-ized while life retreated to malls and suburbs. Not here: Manhattan remains as vibrant and busy as ever, because the city is always changing. I love the wide open New York of today, where everyone lives everywhere (if only they can afford it!) Selling the city is my job and I am proud of it.