stephen dubner

By Eileen Katz

Being in a rock band may have brought Stephen Dubner to New York City, but it was discovering Fairway, and a few other things, that led him to the Upper West Side. He is a journalist, the co-author of the Freakonomics book series and host of Freakonomics Radio. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Ellen Binder Dubner, their two children and their very adorable dog.

Why the West side, Stephen?

One of the reasons I love the West side is the feeling you get when you’re entering it. There are a couple of points of entry that I do a lot when I travel out of town, which unfortunately is often, and coming back from LaGuardia or JFK when you come down the FDR, cross 97th Street and when you hit 5th and 97th, and you’re about to enter the park, that’s when I exhale, even though you’re still on the East side, just barely.

But then, more often, it’s coming from the South and coming up from downtown or midtown, whatever, and the first point of exhalation is Columbus Circle. Even just coming up CPW right there immediately feels different. Then the next big one is 81st street. Once you get past 81st. Because then you feel like it’s all natives for the most part. I love it. I grew up in the country. In the middle of nowhere upstate New York. My parents were from Brooklyn. They were real city people, but I was not and I never thought I’d want to live in any city, much less New York.

When did you come to the city?

I moved here after college. During and after college I played in a rock band that got signed to a record deal. We weren’t necessarily good, but…I moved here, for what I thought was temporary, with the band, then we started to make a record. Working in the city mostly but living in New Jersey. But then I decided I didn’t want a rock ‘n roll life after all. I left for a short time but then I had met a girl and I moved here to New York, and I thought it would be temporary.

I really didn’t want live here and I thought I would be here for a year, maximum. And I was living in Chelsea. Then my second apartment was 43rd and Tenth before Times Square was the way it is now. It was really nasty. Then I went to grad school at Columbia so both the Columbia neighborhood and the Times Square neighborhood, neither of them were like they are now. And then I made it to 54th and 7th and I was working at The New York Times so I could walk to work which was nice, but I still really didn’t like New York cause I was living in not really great neighborhoods in not really great apartments and I had no money. But then I had a good job at the Times and I met [my eventual wife] Ellen and I still wanted to leave the city and she said: “You know you need to live in a residential neighborhood before you decide to abandon New York”. So we moved to Central Park West right after 9/11. We had been looking at many other places – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, thinking I couldn’t afford to live here as a writer, but when we got to 96th and Central Park West, I finally felt this makes it worth it to stay in New York. There were three playgrounds within a 5 minute walk. It was great.

Then we decided to buy, and given we’re pretty lazy, we ended buying right across the street from where we were renting. And now we’re moving closer to the Museum of Natural History! I love love that area! For a country kid, it’s the best because it’s the city but it feels peaceful, it feels neighborly, it feels a little bit Parisian which I like and I love the West side. Before we bought this new place, we looked again kind of all over, but had no feeling to want to live anywhere else.  The East side in some ways is kind of neater, but we always feel you need to have your visa checked when you cross there and the West side is just a place where I feel all of us can just kind of be yourself.

What’s the best part of living up here?

To me, because of what I do, I just need some form of tranquility. Once in a while I go downtown to WNYC where I make the radio show, when I’m not doing it remotely from here, and like one day of just taking the C train down to Spring Street and working there 8 or 10 hours, and then taking the C train back, I feel like I’ve been on some hiking expedition to Bolivia or something. I’m exhausted. It’s a lot! It’s a lot of stress on the system. I like walking to work and up here it’s a block and a half walk. I like the way the neighborhood looks, it’s beautiful, I like the park. I have a pretty horrible sense of direction so the grid layout is very useful. I can walk for an hour without thinking about what direction I’m going which is helpful. Like you know if I go for a walk when I’m in Paris or London within three minutes I’m totally lost! Just totally lost.

Do you have any favorite restaurants?

I love Red Farm a lot! That’s where we had my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah lunch. I love Red Farm. I just think their food is crazy inventive and good. I like Café Luxembourg. That was one of the reasons I came to like the West side. I thought it was nice to have a kind of place like that in the hood. I like Gabriella’s and Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table right over here. I’ve gotten to know the couple who run those two places. I kinda like Bareburger which is new up here. The family likes it. It’s a fun place. I like diners. I like that we have City Diner, Key West, or whatever they’re calling it now, then Metro. It’s nice to have your pick of diners. I like that fast healthy casual is now all over the Upper West Side. Whether it’s Chipotle or Chop’t. I like Chirping Chicken. Chirping Chicken is delicious. Seriously. Their chicken shwarma which is underappreciated, nobody orders it, is really good. There’s also this little hole in the wall shwarma place called Grill 212 or something like that. A little Kosher shwarma place literally down a stair case…I like that. Delicious!

Are there any downsides to living up here? Anything that gets under your skin?

There is kind of a culture of complaint on the West side. Which I think we are famous for but we also kind of brag about at the same time. But I don’t think that’s so much a function of the kind of people who are here as much as a function of this is a place where a lot of people have lived for a long time. So I think if you go to any neighborhood where there’s a lot of longtime residents and a lot of change you get that. It’s like, one of the things I like about New York is the rate of change. I like that. Now I know some people don’t. In fact, I think most people don’t. I just do.

If I have a favorite place to go, a bookstore, a restaurant, and it closes down am I sad? Of course I am, but I don’t think that means I should necessarily assail the entire capitalist and political system that got rid of my store. I mean the complaints are always like “Well why don’t they just do this.” Well who is the “they”? If you have a favorite place that you love and it goes out of business, the culprit is often the greedy landlord. Is the landlord really greedy? Maybe, maybe not. Does the landlord invest in things and build things and have a family to support? Probably. Now this is not just the Upper West Side, but I do feel in New York a lot of the agonizing is based on a kind of misunderstanding of how capitalism works. Now I understand that there might be people who might not want capitalism at all. And I empathize with that view. I do think that it’s the best system. Warts and all, it is better than the alternative. So I empathize with the people who don’t want any change and I understand that as you get older you like things where they are.

Now I remember before Whole Foods opened, people, even in my building, which is a pretty typical building, there were a lot of people saying: “ Whole Foods is a corporate bastard, they’re going to ruin the neighborhood, I’m never going to shop there, etc.” Then Whole Foods opens, you go there and what do you see? You see everyone from the neighborhood gathering like it’s the town square which you’d never had a place like that before. And moreover, the people from my building who were complaining about it are standing there in the middle of it! So I get the whole sentiment against overdevelopment and so on, but I also know that anytime I read any kind of history, and I like economic history, almost inevitably, almost anything new is condemned. People don’t like change.

Can you describe for me the typical West sider?

I would say the typical West sider, of a certain generation at least, cause that’s what I kinda know, is extraordinarly erudite. And when you’re around that all the time, and you soak it in too, and you’re at Fairway or Citarella or Zabar’s and you’re talking to the person next to you and you’re saying: “Isn’t it funny that the guy selling second hand books outside has Lolita but no Malcolm Webb?”, and you get used to that kind of conversation and you go somewhere else – Florida or California – and conversations just feel empty. And that’s what I think of mostly as an Upper West Sider.

There’s a certain erudition, there’s a certain maybe, loveable crankiness. And I attribute that, I think about this a lot, I attribute that to…like I do think it’s human nature to some degree, that we’re never happy with what we have. Psychologists explore this as assimilation or accommodation. That you look at this goal and say “if only I could have that I’d be happy.” Then you get it and you’re not happy because you’re constantly wanting more. And on one hand that looks to be a flaw, but I look at it as it portrays this very human characteristic which is always wanting to improve ourselves and our world. Now that’s very much a very Jewish concept. Obviously, the Upper West Side is very Jewish, which, by the way, is another reason I like it a lot. I can’t claim for a fact that secular notion comes solely from Judaism, but I think the instinct to not be satisfied, to lobby, to berate, to improve, even to complain in the service for the greater good, I think that’s a great human trait and I think there’s a lot of that here. It’s vibrancy that teeters sometimes in to chaos, but I’d rather have that than, uh, Orlando. But look, Orlando is a very popular place. Different people like different things and I am okay with that!

Orlando aside, if you found yourself stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing from Zabar’s, what would it be?

Well, they do have a brand of liverwurst, that’s not called liverwurst. It’s some kind of pate. But when I was a kid, we had zero luxuries. Our luxury meat was liverwurst. And I didn’t eat it forever and I was in Zabar’s not that long ago and I said to the guy: “Do you have liverwurst?” and the guy gave me this tube. It was like an $8 little tube of pate that was fancy and it was mindbogglingly good. And now I buy it always. And that tube would travel very well too to a desert island.

But I also love Fairway! Honestly, you’re not going to believe this, but the Fairway up here, the original, was the first, that was the Fairway that made me decide I could and would want to stay in New York City. I had gotten this job at New York Magazine and got assigned what they called this loser piece, but I didn’t think so, that covered all the things to do in New York City on the weekends in the summer. I was asking around and someone said well, Fairway is really not crowded on the weekends. And I had never heard of it and didn’t know the Upper West Side at all. And asked: “What’s Fairway?” and was told it was this crazy really big supermarket. So I went to Fairway! Who doesn’t like food? Food is awesome. For me, my favorite thing about making a good salary, literally my favorite use of money is to go grocery shopping and not to have to look at the prices cause when I was a kid that didn’t happen. I loved Fairway and I loved how weird it is, how good it is, how intense it is, how passionate the people who ran it were about their cheese and the stuff they brought in from all over the world. And I discovered how empty it was in the summer on the weekends. It was the first thing I totally fell in love with on the Upper West Side.

Have you had a quintessential Upper West Side experience?

It was when I learned that Singer (Issac) lived in the Belnord and roamed the hallways looking for conversation and female companionship, I thought, this is definitely a place that I could live. And something about the Belnord, also, having the courtyard, it was very European because there’s what you saw on the street but then there’s this life inside. And I just loved Singer as a writer, even as a human although he was very imperfect.

And then there was also the time, it just feels so Upper West Side, I don’t know why, when Ellen and I were with the kids, this was 6 or 7 years ago and we had just eaten at Ollie’s on 84th, which I miss, it was some holiday, a quiet day and we were going to cross the street to go to the movies and it was one of those days that was unbelievably windy – it felt like 70 or 80 miles per hour winds, and we got to the median of Broadway and I’m holding on to our kids and this little old lady was standing there with a cane and the wind literally blew her over on to her face. And my kids went to her first and tried to lift her and then I ran over and the four of us got her on her feet and I liked that she just looked at us for a second, nodded her thanks, not missing a beat, continued on her way in to the 80 miles per hour wind. Didn’t care that the wind had literally just knocked her over, didn’t care she almost was knocked in to traffic, just continued on her way. And I just liked that.

And that’s what the Upper West Side is to me: Resilient, a little bit crazy, very windy.

And when “Stephen Dubner” Day is declared how would you like it spent?

First, we would cordon of a little piece of Central Park for a fun golf outing (I’m new to golf – attracted to the Scottish shepard’s sport aspect of it), then food from Red Farm and I can’t choose between Fairway, Zabars and Citerella so a picnic from all 3 followed by cocktails at Café Luxembourg. And then, I’d tell you what I’d do, is go to the stand up club on 77th. It’s nice to have a place like that up here. I like laughing and I like trying to make people laugh. I did stand up comedy myself for the first time last week! It was part of a challenge. And then something at Columbia. I went there and I not so secretly want one or both of my kids to go there so they’ll stay home.

And then maybe we’ll end up at the Natural History Museum where we’ll have a cook out on the parts of the park where you’re not allowed to go. So the theme I guess here is I want to use parts of the park for things you’re not allowed to! I want to play some golf in Central Park and I want to be able to get in to the Teddy Roosevelt Park on the cordoned off part and I realize that the reason they’re so beautiful is because there’s no foot traffic, but for one day to get in there for this picnic, with linens from Laytners would be great! I really love the West side.

To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.

COLUMNS | 12 comments | permalink
    1. Manhattanmarg says:

      Um … Isn’t it deserted island? And I know for a fact it’s Citarella. Just sayin’

    2. Nelson says:

      Stephen Dubner comes across as a very affable gentleman. Some good tips in there… I look forward to running into him one day. Meantime, good luck with your golf game, sir!

    3. Margaret says:

      Great interview! Nice to see the shawarma spot Grill 212!

    4. Lois says:

      And I really love this interview!

    5. Ughhh…sooo boring. Are people really this self-absorbed??

    6. Sarah says:

      LOVE this! Spot on.

    7. Abby says:

      Hi Stephen:

      Are you related to Lilian Dubner? I knew her from teaching program in Israel.
      If so, please get in touch,

    8. Abby says:

      Hi Stephen:

      I knew a Lillian Dubner, teacher. Any relation?


    9. Bart says:

      Isaac Bashevis Singer’s name is not only spelled incorrectly, but I would like to know what Dubner meant when he states that Mr. Singer “roamed the hallways looking for conversation and female companionship.” What a disrespectful and inaccurate portrayal of a great Nobel Prize winning author. Real upper westsiders would never speak so disrespectfully.

    10. justaperson says:

      “this human characteristic [of outward selflessness] is very much a Jewish concept”. “Capitalism…I do think it’s the best system”. It appears Dubner has separated his social and moral ideology into two opposing camps that he can easily cross when the need suits his interests. Perhaps others are fighting for a hybrid socio-economic system that Dubner rejects yet lives when he is not promoting his money making alter ego.

    11. Joanne says:

      Love this column and love all of Stephens books! He seems to be a very wise, sweet and thoughtful person and west sider. So glad he’s one of us!