THROWBACK THURSDAY: LOCALS WHO GREW UP HERE IN THE 70’S TELL THEIR STORIES

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.

Here’s Matt at age 10 in 1973 with his mom Jackie Shapiro, and today.

Here’s Alison in Central Park in 1978, and more recently.

Here’s Nicole in the Adventure Playground in Central Park near 69th Street.

What are the biggest differences you see in the UWS now and the UWS of your childhood?

Alison:

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.

Nicole:

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.

Matt:

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?

Alison:

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.

Nicole:

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.

Matt:

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?

Alison:

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.

Nicole:

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.

Matt:

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?

Alison:

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.

Nicole:

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.

Matt:

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 westsiderag@gmail.com. See all of our Throwback Thursday posts here.

COLUMNS, HISTORY | 34 comments | permalink
    1. tim says:

      great stories, enjoyed reading; thanks to contributors and WR staff for putting together!

    2. Jean says:

      I know that it’s much more difficult to walk on the Riverside Drive cannonballs as an adult, compared to how I could do it as a young child.

    3. Ralf says:

      As a kid I used to walk around with a butterfly knife, not mugging money. At least some kids still come correct.

    4. Scott says:

      There are certain kinds of grittiness that have their charms, but being mugged (or the fear of being mugged) has absolutely nothing to recommend it.

    5. Bruce Bernstein says:

      great stories, great perspective.

      I grew up in Queens but lived in Morningside Heights as a Columbia undergrad in the early and mid 70s and then moved back to Riverside Drive in 1991. i too felt like somethign has been lost, something sanitized.

      the three interviewees express what has been lost better than i can.

      i always dislike it when people say, “og, the old days on the West Side… they were so terrible, so dangerous.” that wasn’t my experience. that is seeing only one side of it.

      • Cat says:

        I was robbed at knife point 3 times before I was 21. The 1st time the cops told me not to bother looking at mug shots because the guy would be back out on the street the next day. The 2nd time they said since I wasn’t hurt there was no point in pursing it, and the 3rd time they recommended that I start carrying money for the next potential robbery. I also learned to walk blocks out of my way to get to my destination and automatically do that now even as an adult. Nothing glamorous or nostalgic about it at all.

      • ScooterStan says:

        Re BB’s “i too felt like something has been lost,” and “that is seeing only one side of it.”

        Yup, and guess WHAT was lost:
        1. “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;

        2. “Everything generally looked smaller, shabbier, and dirtier. Central Park was a big dustbowl.

        3. “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.”

        Ahhh, the “good old days!” Where HAVE they gone?

        Far, far, far awayyyyy and never to return…let us hope!

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          …. and you just confirmed my point. I suggest you read the interviews over.

    6. GG says:

      Yes, I grew up on the UWS in the 70’s and 80’s and taking a couple of beatings and/or muggings was just part of life back in those days. The stories I could tell….whoa! I would probably be called a racist/classist/elitist if I told them though, even if I just kept to the facts.

      Anyway, you had to pay your dues back then…and earn it (the status of UWSider and NYer in general). That is probably why we all feel so protective of and prideful in this neighborhood.

      These days, these rich folks waltz in here from G-d knows where and complain about minor stuff like delivery guys zipping around on bikes or whatever…meanwhile THEY are the ones ordering the food every night. I don’t know. SMH.

      No matter how ‘bad’ it is today, it is still Disneyland compared to the 70’s and 80’s. Anyone who was here knows that and will back me up. There were blocks you knew NOT to walk down back then. That doesn’t exist today and I think that is progress.

    7. Sean says:

      It was definitely a lot more festive.

    8. OriginalMark says:

      Mugging money! I forgot all about that!
      I lived at 98/Bway in the early 80s and used to carry mugging money. Fortunately I never had to use it.

    9. Janice says:

      These are great stories! I grew up in the Bronx, moved to the UWS when I was 19 and never looked back. What I experienced was similar–and I too still figure out what blocks to walk on and which ones to avoid. Would love to see more of these.

    10. Se says:

      The UWS that you are describing was well known for broad diversity, yet you interviewed only 3 white, middle class people.
      I grew up on the UWS during the 1960s, living on Columbus Ave. in the 90s and 100s. I never carried “mugging money”, in fact was never mugged, went to public schools, walked on all streets, practically lived in Central Park – and completely loved the UWS.
      Yes, it was gritty, but I never considered it to be dangerous. There were real people as our neighbors, entire multigenerational families such as mine. There were unique, family run shops, not the generic chains of today. That’s just what made the UWS of those days so special. That’s why seeing what it’s turned into is so sad.

      • Cat says:

        There was clearly a difference between growing up on the UWS in the 60’s than the 70’s-80’s.

      • GG says:

        I’m curious. What is your race, ethnicity & class? Can I assume it is not “white, middle class” as you wrote about the subjects of this article.

        Perhaps it was safer for you because you are NOT white and/or middle class. Those white middle class folks were the victims of these crimes and harassment. Young, poor African-American or Hispanic kids aren’t being robbed by middle class white or Jewish kids. However, a middle class Jewish kid like myself was robbed and attacked countless times as a teen…in Central Park, Riverside Park, the 1 train, etc. Take a guess by who?Disadvantaged minority youths and there is a reason why and ignoring it isn’t going to help anyone. We have many problems in this community but it is getting better every year. Take from someone who has been here long enough to see it.

        On another note, I hope the WSR chooses to print this comment. We are all adults and can have a discussion that involves race, class and ethnicity without it becoming uncivilized. Discussions of history are important and must be accurate and factual. Thanks.

        • Sean says:

          I was mugged Back then. It happened on Riverside Fr. at sundown. I had no cash on me. They took my new parka off me. I later saw this crew on the #1 train. One of the guys was wearing my jacket. My apartment was robbed too. The police were called and came. They said since I wasn’t Jackie O it wasn’t worth pursuing. It was probably an inside job they said anyway. No forced entry meant was probably a building employee. You had to be aware of who was behind you or around you at all times. The UWS was still filled the most vibrant and smart people that you would ever want to meet. Today a gut renovated brownstone on W75th St. has an asking price of 17.5 million.

        • Se says:

          Cat – I was in JHS in the mid-late 60s and HS in the early 70s.

          GG – Not that it matters in the least, but I am white and Jewish. My friends and I moved throughout all different areas of the City, uptown and downtown. I had (and still have) friends of all economic and racial backgrounds. Perhaps that made a difference. Don’t think I know anyone who was ever mugged or felt scared in NYC.

          • GG says:

            Wow! Never! That is shocking to me but then again that was a different time. I’m talking about the late 70’s and early to mid-80’s. You know…economic crisis, homelessness,and then crack, AIDS, Reagan. Ahhh….those were the times.

            It sounds to me like you might have been in Mayberry or something and you just got confused. Or maybe it was an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. No wait, that was in Brooklyn.

            It’s funny to me that you think your race makes no difference to your likelihood of being robbed but the fact that you have very diverse friends (as if we all don’t, it is NYC after all) somehow might. You are an interesting dude, I’ll give you that. You wouldn’t be Vinny Barbarino by any chance.:)Just teasing, good show though.

            • Se says:

              GG – think it’s so funny about all the assumptions you’ve been making. Not a “dude”, no Mayberry, no Brooklyn – I’m just a white girl from the Upper West Side who knows how to get along.

            • GG says:

              No you are right, there is no crime or violence in NYC and there never has been. I don’t know what I was thinking. Especially in the 70’s and 80’s…it was so peaceful and loving. Like a big hippie commune.

              I didn’t mean anything by the Mayberry comment however I’m starting to think Sesame Street might have been more accurate.:)

            • EricaC says:

              GG, it seems as though, because Se’s experience is not what you expect (want?), she must be living in fantasyland. Perhaps you should stop and consider that her experience is accurate. (It is pretty much the same as mine in the late ’80s, though that was past the crisis, I think). There was a lot of crime. There was interracial/inter-community strife. I will tell you that the only time I (white Jewish young (then) woman) have threatened in this city, it has been by white, middle- or upper-class men. Doesn’t mean men in those categories are all bad – does suggest that who you feel threatened by may depend a lot on your personal experiences, and that it is important not to let anecdotal experience play an exclusive role in your understanding of the world.

            • GG says:

              I think you are both missing the point. I don’t want or expect anything. I know history. I lived it, as did the people in this article, and countless others.

              You two seem to be the ones that are swayed by mere anecdotal evidence, e.g. your personal experiences. Maybe it makes you feel special or cool to have avoided it all, I don’t know. Se made a point of how multi-cultural her circle was while criticizing this article as too “white and middle class” as if we are all elitist and racist or something.

              Anyway, I know revisionist history is all the rage these days as well as alternative facts but I’m not buying it. People are free to think whatever they want but the history has already been written.

            • Se says:

              GG – snarky retorts are not usually especially helpful in getting your point across. I never said that crime didn’t exist, nor did I suggest that I was questioning your experience. I was just pointing out that there are many neighbors of yours who clearly had very different childhoods from yours. Just sayin’….

        • Sarah says:

          There’s nothing civilized about implying that black/Hispanic kids are inherently lawless. Nothing.

          • GG says:

            Really, Sarah?!? That’s your take-away from what I wrote? I wish I had more time so I could give you a lesson in basic Sociology, and maybe reading comprehension too.

            By the way, my wife and children are Hispanic, not that it’s really relevant to the issue but it is relevant to your silly accusations of racism or at least racial insensitivity.

            Cuidate mi amor.:)

    11. Scott says:

      If only people put the same energy into fighting back against crime that they put into whining about chain restaurants. The story of the UWS of the 70s was cowardice, of people who refused to take back their neighborhoods and instead carried “mugger’s money.” They should have mobbed Mayor Beame’s office and demanded the right to conceal carry. Instead they put another dead bolt on their doors and hid.

      • Jerome Locke says:

        The massive problem is Institutionalized Racism.

      • davidaron60 says:

        Nonsense. Many of us were active members of actual Block Associations and volunteer groups that worked with our neighbors from all backgrounds to better our situation here on The UWS. That is our history.

        • Scott says:

          Two things David:

          1) Your efforts failed. Miserably.

          2) I didn’t make up the part about “mugger’s money” and “avoiding the sidewalk.” Those are the accounts of people in this story. These are the actions of frightened people who lost control of their neighborhoods.

          • Sammie@lynn says:

            I remember being told to walk in the street on my way to school. I was given ’emergency’ money and told that I should give it up and run in the opposite direction if I was mugged. I was always terrified of being hit by a car, and now it’s clear that the ‘run in the opposite direction,’ method of escape would only have worked if someone in a car tried to grab me. Remember the chain snatching epidemic? I didn’t have any jewelry so I didn’t understand what the problem was. Now that I think of it, I was way too young to be walking to school alone. Great childhood memories, lol. Definitely different times today!

    12. Jerome Locke says:

      The biggest problem is the Institutionalized Racism. Massive problem.

    13. Sarah says:

      Everybody complaining about how we’re back in the 70s because their precious eyes are being sullied by the sight of homeless people on the street really ought to read this.

    14. Se says:

      GG – snarky retorts are not usually especially helpful in getting your point across. I never said that crime didn’t exist, nor did I suggest that I was questioning your experience. I was just pointing out that there are many neighbors of yours who clearly had very different childhoods from yours. Just sayin’….