by Peter Salwen
Columbus Circle, c. 1907
Charles Schwab mansion,
Riverside Drive, "the largest and
most lavish home ever built on
A suitably grisly death
awaited Arthur "Dutch
long-time Beer Baron of
the West Side.
World premiere of Babes In
Toyland at Columbus Circle's
Majestic Theatre, 1903.
UPPER WEST SIDE STORY:
A History and Guide
I've decided to blame this whole thing on the goat.
When I came to the Upper West Side in the 1950s, she had been standing for decades
in the window of Friedgen's Pharmacy, at Amsterdam Avenue and West 118th Street.
Stuffed. If you asked what a stuffed nanny goat was doing in a drugstore window
(everyone did, once) you learned that she had been a historic figure -- the last goat in the
neighborhood, lived into the 1920s or '30s. And if you were properly impressed (most
people were), Mr. Friedgen would top that by pointing to a framed photo behind the
counter. It showed a wooded setting and two young men with shotguns, grinning and
leaning against a sign that read NO HUNTING. That, he said, was Morningside Heights a
The idea that my intensely urban neighborhood had sprung up out of farmland, and
within living memory at that, was intriguing, and like most intriguing thoughts it was
forgotten. Twenty-some years later, though, that photo and that goat were in the back of
my mind when I set out to learn a little more about my neighborhood, present and past.
I was living then near Riverside Drive on West 89th street (some of us don't cover a lot of
distance). All I wanted then was a half-page of local history for a block association
newsletter, and just as an aside I would like to suggest that bookson New York history
should carry a warning label: CAUTION, ADDICTIVE MATERIAL. A few weekends'
research at the Historical Society and I was hooked -- and I'd fallen in love all over again
with Manhattan's Upper West Side, the quirky, sordid, hustling, grandiose, hopelessly
overarticulate hodgepodge of a neighborhood bounded by Morningside, Riverside, and
Central Parks and stretching from Columbus Circle to roughly today's West 125th Street.
The first result of that addiction was a series of articles in the late, lamented Columbus
Ave magazine, where Sue Berkman and Mary Frances Shaugnessy, the editor and
publisher, very kindly allowed their local historian free rein. The second is this book.
Like most kids exposed to an American education, I had had the general idea that
history began in 1776. Rooting around among old books and manuscripts, I found
myself among some neighbors who had been carrying on remarkably like today's New
Yorkers a good century before the Revolution. I also came the somewhat startled
realization that my little corner of New York had a population well over a quarter of a
million -- roughly equal to that of Sacramento or Akron, or of Hartford and New Haven
combined -- i.e., it was a fair-sized city in its own right, and one that had never really been
written about, unless you counted a couple of parish histories that came out in 1907 and
I became fascinated with how the onnetime riverbank suburb got swallowed up by the
burgeoning metropolis -- and even more by the fact that it apparently stuck, undigested,
in the city's craw. Like an unsubdued colony, the Upper West Side often seems, as an
earlier writer, Lloyd Morris, put it, like a city unto itself, with its own distinctive social tone.
With a few obvious differences, a biography of the Upper West Side could be the story of
almost any American town. One difference, of course, is that any American town would
not have boasted -- or endured -- the throng that has made the Upper West Side one of
New York's most vital neighborhoods.
A collage of Upper West Side faces would include Lillian Russell and Anna Held;
William Tecumseh Sherman and Florenz Ziegfeld; Charles Evans Hughes and Bruno
Richard Hauptmann; Humphrey Bogart and Richard Rodgers; F. Scott Fitzgerald and
Theodore Dreiser; Caruso and Toscanini; Walter Winchell and his pal Frank Costello;
Gertrude Stein and Mae West; Leonard Bernstein and John Lennon; Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and Polly Adler. And luckily for the storyteller, most of them were up to something
worth mentioning when they were here.
You'll also meet a number of their relatively unknown neighbors, some of them
sufficiently celebrated or notorious in their own day but never, until now, trapped between
the covers of a book.
When the townsfolk of New Amsterdam first turned their attention to the undeveloped
West Side, they called it Blomendaal, "flowering valley," after a town in Holland's tulip
region. Gentrification, as we now call it, started in the 1760s, when the wealthiest
Colonial merchants and power brokers chose this area, with its grand river views, for
their lavish country seats. In the nineteenth century the name "Bloomingdale" was
familiar to all New Yorkers. The Bloomingdale Road (later renamed The Boulevard or
Western Boulevard) was the main western route out of town and a favorite with coaching
and sleighing parties; we call it Broadway. There were three different Bloomingdale
Squares on the map at different times, and the Bloomingdale Lunitic Asylum -- where
Columbia University is now -- was a prime tourist attraction.
For most of this century the name "Upper West Side" has been familiar and thoroughly
unfashionable; the area's most recent gentrification -- a verb coined by an Upper West
Side journalist, by the way -- was preceded by a long half-century when it became home
to an unsurpassed mix of classes, races, and ways of life, which was stimulating or
alarming, depending on your point of view.
My archetypal East Side - West Side story (old style) is about the Fifth Avenue dowager
who admits that yes, she actually had been to the West Side once, "but only to board the
Ile de France for Cherbourg, my dear."
The people in this book would mostly have been outside the lady's circle of
acquaintance: promoters, eccentrics, writers, socialists, scientists, madams, artists,
mobsters, a counterfeiter and a poisoner or two, lots of actors, musicians and theater
people. But then at times it also was a place of high social aspirations, a district of fine
homes and noble public boulevards. At certain carefully selected epochs in the
neighborhood's checkered past, I would wager, the Cherbourg-bound lady would have
felt right at home.
But then, so would the goat.
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