What will New Yorkers remember about 2011? I suspect we will remember the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 10th anniversary of September 11, and Hurricane Irene. But on the Upper West Side in particular, a handful of stories stood out.
1. Major store closings
There were plenty of major store openings this year: Century 21 on 66th Street, EMS on 76th, and Momofuku Milk Bar on 87th stand out for the drumbeat of publicity heralding their arrival and then the debates about whether the new businesses are great or totally overrated! Those debates will continue, and those places will probably seem old in about 6 months. But closings made the biggest news this year.
H&H Bagels, the famous shop on 80th Street and Broadway that was celebrated in movies and TV shows as the quintessential New York bagel spot, closed in June, as its troubled owner Helmer Toro fell way behind on bills. The closing was greeted with sorrow, and a hastily formed group tried to save the store. Sadly, there was no saving H&H. Food critics noted that H&H bagels really weren’t that great, and were basically inauthentic replicas of real New York bagels. But losing the store undoubtedly ripped a hole out of the neighborhood.
Maxilla & Mandible, the fascinating store on 81st Street and Columbus Avenue filled with everything from dinosaur bones to fossils to whole stuffed animals, closed at the end of August. A generation of Upper West Side kids grew up inside this store, and saved their money each week to buy the oddities it sold. Maxilla & Mandible still exists as a kind of archaeological consulting business, but the store shut quietly with a sign saying simply “Gone Digging.”
Numerous other well-known stores also closed, including Borders in the Time Warner Center and Filene’s Basement on 79th Street. Things got so bad that one anonymous Upper West Sider began posting stickers on empty storefronts that said “This is Neighborhood Rot.” We have maps of the openings and closings since May here here here here and here.
2. Freakish weather
Hurricane Irene may have technically been a tropical storm when it hit New York City on August 28, but she’ll always be a hurricane to me. The excitement and fear that heralded the hurricane’s arrival put the city on a sort of giddy edge for 48 hours. Buildings were evacuated, and everyone cobbled together their disaster kits and horded a stunning amount of food. When the storm actually hit, it was so underwhelming that all people could think about was which cafes might be open so they could get a muffin and a latte.
The freak weather didn’t stop there. There was a record amount of rain this August, and mushrooms started blooming in unlikely places, attracting crowds of gawkers. The rain may also have contributed to the awful mosquito problem on 84th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue that had residents sleeping under mosquito nets.
And then on Oct. 31, it snowed, destroying hundreds of unsuspecting trees. It hasn’t snowed since. What?
3. The Success Academy fight
Starting in 2010, Upper West Side parents and politicians mobilized against a new charter school run by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Network. Upper West Side schools have had a mixed record as of late, but parents and community leaders had been working on a plan to improve them, and were angry that the city was planting a new school inside an existing building against their wishes. Success Academy sent out a stunning number of glossy flyers advertising the school, and people from other neighborhoods came to meetings to tell Upper West Siders how to run their schools, which didn’t exactly endear the network to locals. After opponents lost a lawsuit, the school opened this fall. The bad blood continues, but we will reserve judgment until we actually get a chance to visit and do some reporting.
4. A Restaurant Resurgence?
A perennial topic on the Upper West Side: Is this finally the year when people don’t have to leave the area to get a decent meal? In a column before the new year, former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton made this pronouncement: “[T]here is little reason now to ever leave the Upper West Side to dine.” Among the excellent additions to the neighborhood were Greek restaurant Loi on 70th Street and Boulud Sud and Epicerie Boulud on 64th (both are pretty pricey, but foodies argue that they’re worth it, and Maria Loi is frankly delightful). I also enjoyed the new Jacob’s Pickles on 85th when I went recently. Still, calling the Upper West Side a true destination for restaurant-lovers is probably a stretch. If you disagree, let us know in the comments.
5. Zabar’s Faux-Lobster Salad
This was one of the more ridiculous stories in the neighborhood in 2011, but it had surprising resonance. This past summer, a columnist from New Orleans came to New York and stopped at Zabar’s for lunch. He bought a small tub of lobster salad and spread it on a bagel. But he quickly realized that the “lobster” wasn’t lobster at all — it was crawfish. He wrote a small, cute blog item about it and that was that. Except a newspaper in Maine heard about it, and rose up to defend the lobster’s honor, claiming that Zabar’s was violating some sort of labeling rule. We heard about the small spat, which hadn’t yet gotten any other publicity, and posted a hyperbolic article on it entitled “Zabar’s Committing Lobster Salad Fraud?”
The story went viral, as they say, and within days it was literally on the front page of the New York Times. Bowing to pressure, Saul Zabar agreed to change the name of the concoction, and eventually settled on the totally weird “Zabster Zalad” ignoring the other names chosen by our readers, including “Lobster Impostor”. Zabar also said the store had never gotten this much publicity, and the overall reaction was a net positive for the store. So, no hard feelings, Saul? Oh, we shouldn’t call you Saul? Sorry.
Below, are five of the most popular posts of the year, as measured by pageviews.