BOOK REVIEW: THE UPPER WEST SIDE IS THE ‘CITY OF NOSTALGIA’ IN FASCINATING NEW BOOK

By Harriet Flehinger

In his endearing new book Magnetic City, Justin Davidson, the architecture critic of New York Magazine, takes readers on seven engaging walks through New York City neighborhoods. All the walks are richly observed, but the Upper West Side is particularly dear to Davidson, whose family lives here. He calls the chapter “City of Nostalgia” and writes that his wife, who grew up here, “can still itemize all the businesses along the West Side of Broadway…circa 1975.”

Davidson has a keen sense of history and his walking tour brings to life important characters from the neighborhood’s past. But his appreciation of history also leaves him open to the Upper West Side’s changes. In fact, he notes that some nostalgia can be dangerous.

“Railing against change is often an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia, and we wind up mourning establishments we never patronized or buildings we never really liked,” he writes.

Written more like an epic poem in prose than a standard walking tour guidebook, this book can be equally enjoyed following its directions through the streets or from your favorite comfy chair. Davidson’s research and imagination envisions not just the exteriors of the buildings along the way, but often the emotions and motivations of people who inhabited these residences at various periods in their history.

“The combination of sturdy architecture and traumatized lives gave the Upper West Side a wistful character that has never quite dissipated. More than most parts of the City, it is shadowed by memory.”

Davidson points out that the UWS of the 20th Century was strongly shaped by Jews, many of whom, although well-to-do, were not welcomed to live on the Upper East Side until well after WWII. We also learn the UWS has been home to one of the most diverse populations in Manhattan, including Black people, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Following the author’s guidance, we begin to see that more has stayed the same than has changed since the UWS’s major development began with the Dakota in 1884. The formidable housing stock, which led the UWS back from decline to prosperity, has not changed as much as we think. The vast majority of Riverside Drive, West End Ave, Columbus Ave (minus the El), Amsterdam Ave, and Central Park West remain virtually unchanged. Only the face of Broadway (notably except Zabar’s block) and the area that became Lincoln Center has been significantly altered in the last 75 years.

Clearly money has washed over the UWS, as over the rest of Manhattan in the past 25 years.   However, the author treasures his “slice of Manhattan…where particularly along Columbus Avenue, wealthy co-ops co-exist with middle-income towers, low income housing projects, and rambling rent controlled pre-war pads. The Upper West Side’s identity has shifted this way and that, between co-existing polies: bohemian and stolid, comfortable and marginal, crime-ridden and somehow serene.”

In what could be pulled directly out of the comments section of West Side Rag, I paraphrase from the author’s talk at the Museum of the City of New York in mid-April. ”If you live here long enough you get to complain about the high crime, the filthy streets, drug dealing, the rodent infestation AND THEN you get to complain about the gentrification, the high rents, and the loss of the neighborhood’s “authenticity.” Sound familiar?

Justin Davidson will discuss the book this Thursday, May 4 at 7 p.m. at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue.

ART, COLUMNS | 7 comments | permalink
    1. John says:

      ”If you live here long enough you get to complain about the high crime, the filthy streets, drug dealing, the rodent infestation AND THEN you get to complain about the gentrification, the high rents, and the loss of the neighborhood’s “authenticity.”

      He forgot to mention the return of crime, filthy streets and drug dealing that have returned under De blasio

      • Mark says:

        I would surmise, from your De Blasio comment to your disinterest in facts and data, that you are someone on the political Right.

        • John says:

          Hum I see stories like this weekly on the west side.
          Police are looking for suspects in two recent crimes, a shooting and a bank robbery, on the Upper West

          The TD bank on west 62nd has been robbed twice since they opened that location in other news.

          Homeless encampment in park at 63rd street every morning.

          I could go on and on
          etc. etc.

          • Mark says:

            You are so right that there was no crime or filth on the UWS before De Blasio was the mayor.
            As I recall, unicorns frolicked on the streets, rainbows were seen every day, and lollipops fell from the sky under previous mayors.

      • ScooterStan says:

        Dear John (this is not ‘that-kind’ of a “Dear-John” letter)

        Re: “the return of crime, filthy streets and drug dealing”

        WOW! You must be living on the wrong SIDE of the Upper West Side, ’cause there ain’t none of that stuff down here in the high-60’s to low-70s.

        Maybe you should move.

        Unless you’re one of those for whom the glass is not only ALWAYS near-empty but what remains is toxic.

    2. Bloomingdaler says:

      IMH – the “change” we West Siders complain about is not so much about the physical fabric of the neighborhood but about the sense of community within.

      Thanks to a never-failing (let’s hope) sense of community activism, bolstered by such organizations as Landmark WEST!, we West Siders HAVE succeeded in keeping most of neighborhood human-scaled, visually delightful, and livable – physically. I can’t think of anywhere else in Manhattan I’d want to call home.

      As basically a tourbook, Mr. Davidson wouldn’t be expected to go into the huge losses to our community fabric, including the myriad mom and pop stores, the UWS has experienced in the past 40 years, nor I suppose would he mention that in many ways the neighborhood is under siege by developers. Broadway and areas not included in the hard-won landmark districts (and even in those sometimes) are ripe and waiting to be picked and redeveloped to produce buildings so out of scale and context that they’ll not only seem like they’re from a different city, but the urban infrastructure (including a diversity of affordable shopping and mass transit) won’t be able to support them. With increased clout real estate developers have nowadays, virtually nothing is actually “safe.”

      Having not read the book, I don’t know how much, if any, credit Mr Davidson gives the thousands of feisty, colorful, cranky, and determined people who have worked hard for decades to keep the UWS as wonderful (nostalgic???) as it is. May it never end!

    3. Brad says:

      He’s coming on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC 93.9 right now, Monday at noon.