GHOST-HUNTING ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE

By Leonora Desar

Twilight has just settled in, enveloping the Upper West Side in a cool embrace. Even for a Sunday evening the streets seem emptier than usual, the roar of city traffic faded to a dull white noise. A yellow crescent of a moon hangs above to complete the portrait, like the curve of a half-smile — before dissolving, Cheshire-Cat-style behind a cloud.

It’s the perfect night for a ghost tour.

Andrea Janes, a guide for the Ghosts of New York walking tour and a horror writer who lives across the street from a Brooklyn cemetery, illuminates the way with a silver lantern and a sprightly, slightly conspiratorial smile. “New York City is full of lingering spirits,” she confides when asked if she really believes in ghosts.  “To hear them we just need to stand still and be quiet long enough. That’s why the Upper West Side is so great for would-be ghost-hunters.  In the stillness of its streets you can almost hear the spirits whispering.”

The ninety-minute tour begins in front of the art deco doorways of 55 Central Park West (left), the exterior of which was used in the film Ghostbusters, and ends in front of the flickering gas lamps of the Dakota at 1 West 72nd Street, only feet away from John Lennon’s tragic assassination.

The tour is a blend of historical information and spectral speculation.  As we stand in the stillness of Central Park, Janes reveals that there was a community of African American settlers called Seneca Village spanning roughly from 81st to 89th streets in what is now the park.  The village was razed for park construction and villagers did not leave peacefully.   But fact then gives way to conjecture when Janes adds, “There is a strong spiritual presence there – the ghosts of displaced villagers.  It’s not surprising considering what happened.”

The Upper West Side, known for its thespian and literary set, offers a similarly artistic host of spirits.  Italian actor and pop icon Rudolph Valentino haunts the Hotel des Artistes, his spirit appearing as a blur in a hallway mirror while his middle eastern cologne  wafts  down the corridor.  Blocks away at 137 West 71st Street, essayist James Baldwin had spent long nights comforting his mother by reading her passages from the bible —  long after his demise from stomach cancer.

The Ansonia at 230 W 74th Street was once the capital for the artistic elite and stands out with its ornate architecture , a multi-tiered Gothic wedding cake-like facade flanked by gargoyles and turrets.  According to Janes it began attracting mediums and spiritualists around the same time its reputation declined from luxurious residence to seedy swingers paradise and home of the notorious sex club Plato’s Retreat, which rented out space in the Ansonia’s basement.  On Sunday afternoons a Dr. Clifford Bias began conjuring the dead in a chapel off the Ansonia lobby.  One day, a blind-folded Dr. Bias relayed a message echoing popular sentiment from singer Geraldine Farrar: “The Ansonia isn’t what it used to be when I was there.”

But it’s the Dakota (right), built in the 1880s as one of the earliest apartment residences for the very rich, that is known as “ghost central of the Upper West Side” according to Dr. Philip Schoenberg, the founder of the Ghosts of New York tours and author of the book Ghosts of Manhattan. Edward Severin Clark, who commissioned the design of the building, is known as “the ghost with the toupee.”

“Clark finds it hard to leave his beloved Dakota,” Schoenberg says.  “He pops up from time to time and shakes his toupee violently at workmen in the basement of the building when he does not approve of the work they are doing.”

But the Dakota’s most famous specter is John Lennon.  According to Schoenberg,  “Lennon has been good about keeping in touch with people” since his death.  Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s second wife, was reported to have seen her late husband sitting at his white piano in the White Room, which Lennon had created out of his fascination with the color white.  “He turned to her and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am still with you,’” Schoenberg reveals.

But Schoenberg, who also daylights as a history professor at Queens College, seems to ponder this ghost business with a bit of incredulity.  Is he a believer?

“Well, like Mark Twain I am a skeptic,” he laughs.  “But then again, Mark Twain became a ghost himself and haunts 14 West 10th Street.”

For calendar and tickets: http://www.ghostsofny.com/cgi-bin/calendar/long_calendar.cgi

Images via Ghostbusters and wikipedia; Dakota photo by Avi.

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