By Lisa Kava
Having lived on the Upper West Side since 1989, I could never imagine living in another area of the city. This is my home. I lived here first as a college graduate, married another Upper West Sider and we have raised our children here.
I have seen enormous change in many parts of the Upper West Side over the years, and I wanted to get a sense of what things were like in another era before I arrived. So I interviewed three longtime and current Upper West Side residents: Alison, Nicole and Matt. All born in the 1960’s who grew up here and live here now with their families.
What are the biggest differences you see in the UWS now and the UWS of your childhood?
I lived on Amsterdam and 75th and it was pretty sketchy. I always had to map out a route when walking around to make sure I would walk on a safe block. I remember having to walk down Broadway as it was full of people, which was better than walking down Columbus. On the way home from school I would walk by the middle school, IS 44 on 77th between Amsterdam and Columbus. There was always trouble going on there. Walking by the school dismissal was wild, crazy and chaotic. It was much grittier on the Upper West Side and we took pride in that.
I grew up on Central Park West at 69th Street. Everything generally looked smaller, shabbier, and dirtier. Central Park was a big dustbowl When I left the house I would leave with mugging money just in case I got mugged, it was better not to make people angry if I didn’t have anything to give them. I wasn’t allowed out of the house by myself until I was 13. The side-streets were sketchy and that was where people got mugged, I would walk down the center of the street rather than on the sidewalk. Everyone did this to avoid someone jumping out at them. It felt a little more like the wild west. A bit of an adventure, lots of booksellers on the streets but also more of a community. There was a sense of belonging among the people who lived here. It was the home of intellectuals, books, academics, dirt, equality and liberality. West Siders had a sense of pride in their dirt.
I grew up on West End at 89th and then moved to Riverside and 92nd street. Growing up we needed to be a lot more street smart than the kids today. We needed to be aware of our surroundings and know the safer routes to walk. We had to plan to go over as a group to visit our family friends in the 90’s near Central Park West. There were pretty regular muggings or you would be hassled. People would start walking next to you and if you showed any weakness they would say “give me a dollar.” I was mugged when I was 10 or 11. We had to carry mugging money. It was essentially a toll. When we got hassled we would hand over a couple of bucks. There was also property crime. My dad would regularly have his car battery stolen when the car was parked on Riverside Drive. Then he would find his battery for sale at a store on Amsterdam. Growing up here, the families that committed to stay accepted that the hassle was part of it.
What did you like about growing up on the Upper West Side? What were the positive aspects?
I loved the block parties, everyone brought a ton of food and there was a real sense of community. Today those block parties don’t really exist anymore, there are much larger street fairs. I loved ice-skating on the lake in Central Park as it froze solid. I loved Central Park even though there were parts we were not supposed to go to. There was a little candy shop that I went to every day after school and got an egg cream for 25 cents. It was on Amsterdam between 75th and 76th.
It was not a surprise back then that people lived their entire lives here. It felt like the people who lived here actually lived here, they were not transplants. Everything was kind of rough but people had a protectiveness about it being the right kind of roughness and having the right values. People weren’t worried about how things looked but what things meant. People were more friendly. In the 1980’s things really started to change and by the time I graduated from high school in 1983 it was turning into a place I didn’t recognize. More high-end boutiques, make-up stores, clothing stores were popping up. Sometimes I would comb the internet looking for pictures of how it used to look as it no longer felt like home.
Growing up on Riverside was amazing because of Riverside Park. It was in bad shape, it was dirty and unkempt but there were still trees, playgrounds, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. We loved it, it was our backyard. There were lots of pick up games: softball, football basketball, it was just a crowd of kids of all ages, some you knew some you didn’t but everyone played together. There was no little league, no soccer league, no organized sports like today. We had traditional pick-up games, which were always great mixers. You just got on line for basketball and played. If you won you stayed if you lost you got back on line. All you needed were kids.
Are there things that you are nostalgic about?
I am nostalgic for the small neighborhood stores but not nostalgic for the crime. There were characters on the Upper West Side that were cool. For example, Mr. McGriff volunteered at PS 87, he taught Afro-American studies. He had a German Shepherd that pulled a toy tricycle with a cat on the handlebars. He was famous in the neighborhood, everyone knew him.
With more people who had lived here their entire lives there was a level of interpersonal acceptance, everyone seemed more united. There was a sense of everybody being your neighbor and less judgment. It was the norm to walk into a store and talk to whoever was in the store. You did not feel like people were perfect strangers. Now people seem more formal, more sanitized. I always found the non-judgmentalness appealing. Now if I am in a store with one of my kids and I start talking to a stranger my kids don’t view that as normal the way I did when I was growing up here.
Things were just louder and more aggressive. The screaming in the movie theaters, bringing our mugging money, knowing what street to walk on… all of these things just led to a more heightened awareness. There were so many things that were chaotic, dangerous… it was exciting. It is a weird nostalgia for when times were rougher. Would I wish that on my kids? Not 100%. But I might want some of that for them. Their day-to-day experience is so much easier.
There was a great bodega. In those days they were real bodegas. There was one on 89th and Amsterdam and they sold sugar cane. They literally had big stalks and they would break off a piece for you. If I hadn’t lived on the Upper West Side and walked to school, I would not have been exposed to that.
What made you decide to raise your family here?
I spent some time living in San Francisco as I felt I needed to escape. I didn’t want to become one of those crazy Upper West Side ladies who stored piles of paper in her apartment. But something about the Upper West Side pulled me back. Being back home and near my family after being away was a huge part of it but also it was something about the architecture, the apartments, the feeling of the prewar buildings which are secure and beautiful.
I went to the Midwest for college and graduate school and then went to DC. I expected to live in DC but then my husband got a great opportunity in NYC that he couldn’t turn down so it was a no-brainer for us. Once I was back, there was no question that I would ever live anywhere else and I won’t. There is a vibrancy that I have not seen anyplace else…the culture, the people, the intelligence, the diversity and sometimes the grittiness if you can still find it and which I look for. The Upper West Side is my home, my backyard. I love it.
Both my wife’s family and my family stayed here and we wanted to be near parents and siblings. Work brought us here. We found a classic 6 in an older pre war building and we stayed. I swapped Riverside Park for Central Park and I love it. Central Park is amazing the schools were good, it felt like a great place to raise kids and that turned out to be correct. I think what hasn’t changed is that there are still more things we have to figure out living here. So many choices from applying to nursery school to figuring out housing in the city but we do it. I think there is a certain snobbism from all Upper West Siders that comes from having to deal with more stuff for more years (where we can afford to live, get kids into a school, play baseball) but the rewards are all great and we get bragging rights from having more stuff to figure out.
Thank you to Alison, Nicole and Matt for sharing their personal stories! If anyone wants to share memories and photos from growing up on the UWS, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. See all of our Throwback Thursday posts here.