By Joy Bergmann
Jeffrey Toobin chuckled as he grabbed a bench in his favorite place in New York City – Riverside Park. “My wife thinks it’s very ambitious of me to live 17 blocks from where I grew up.”
The best-selling author, New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst spent his childhood at 90th and Riverside and has lived in the same West 70s building for 23 years with Amy B. McIntosh, CUNY’s Associate Vice Chancellor. The empty-nesters raised a daughter and son here, and recently added Breezy, a Labradoodle puppy, to the family.
An unabashed UWS fanboy who resists nostalgia, Toobin spent a recent hour away from working on his next book – about the Mueller investigation – to talk Fairway strategies, mugger money and the joys of the dog run. After being told that all comments were on the record, Breezy chose to remain silent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WSR: Always an Upper West Sider?
JT: Effectively I’ve always been an Upper West Sider. Except for college, law school and the three years my wife spent in the Obama administration when we lived in Washington. But we never gave up our apartment here. It really is home.
Amy moved here in 1984, and I remember telling her which blocks she could walk on and which ones she couldn’t because the west side was still pretty dangerous.
By the time our kids came along in the 90s, it was almost hard to remember that because the whole place had become so gentrified. Which is a mixed blessing, but the reduction in crime is nothing but welcome.
WSR: You went to Columbia Prep…
JT: I went to PS 166 and then Columbia Prep. My kids went to Ethical Culture and then Fieldston. One of my happiest memories of their childhood was walking them to Ethical.
WSR: You’ve no doubt seen a lot of changes around here.
JT: It’s not that I’m one of these nostalgia buffs. The neighborhood is unambiguously better than what it was, but I remember walking on West End Avenue when they were shooting the scenes for “Network” when the people are yelling out the window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
WSR: Classic. And timely.
JT: One difference from when I grew up? It’s a lot more rich people.
I grew up at 175 Riverside Drive, which was nice building that went co-op after my parents moved in in the 60s. It was accountants, school teachers. And now, 175 Riverside Drive, every apartment is in the multiple millions of dollars. I regret that lack of diversity. The vibe is much wealthier than it was.
WSR: Any places you pine for that are no longer around?
JT: The only two commercial establishments that I unambiguously miss are the Royale Bakery on north side of 72nd Street between Broadway and West End that’s been gone for like 20 years. They had this Mitteleuropean feel and amazing rugulach – the raspberry, not the chocolate. And the All State Cafe on the south side of 72nd Street [now the Emerald Inn].
When our kids were about 4 and 6, there was a serious fire above us in our apartment building. We had to evacuate. But where do you go at one in the morning? We went to the All State Cafe and they were so great. They brought our kids milk. And they certainly didn’t bring us milk. Amy and I were like, “We need a drink!” Our cat, Lightning, was at the bar.
JT: I love the way the neighborhood was, but I love it now. I think New Yorkers recognize that change is part of living here. It’s part of the organic process of a successful city.
WSR: What differentiates the UWS from other nabes?
JT: There’s a settled feeling here. There’s not a lot of space for a lot of new buildings. It’s just so convenient to a lot of places where people work. It’s just an intensely desirable place to live.
I walk to CNN at Columbus Circle and have it timed to the second. I can roll out of bed and be on television in 35 minutes which is pretty great.
WSR: OK, but kvetching is the official sport of the UWS…
JT: That’s true.
WSR: So, what do we need to improve?
JT: I’d like to see greater diversity in terms of income and ethnicity. I’d like to see more independent stores and fewer chains. But I don’t have a lot of complaints.
I mean, we’re sitting in Riverside Park. The Riverside Park in which I grew up, 75 percent of the benches in front of us here would’ve been broken, and there would’ve been graffiti, and we would’ve been in genuine fear of getting mugged. None of which is true now. That’s an unambiguously good thing.
I was a mugged as a kid. A lot of parents of my friends would make sure their kids had a five-dollar bill with them at all times – mugger money so you’d always have something to give a mugger and he wouldn’t kill you. Imagine how terrible that is. That’s gone, that concern.
WSR: Do you feel like the edge is gone, too?
JT: Edge is overrated. I do wish the city was more affordable for people of more limited means. There’s no question that that’s a problem. But if edge means graffiti, if edge means muggings, good riddance.
WSR: Switching gears: Are you Team Fairway or Team Trader Joe’s?
JT: Very much Team Fairway. I’ve never stepped foot in Trader Joe’s. Not because I have any objection. It just never occurs to me to go in there.
WSR: Do you have survival tips for people encountering Fairway for the first time at, say, Sunday at 5pm?
JT: Bring shoulder pads. It can get rough in there, no question about it.
WSR: Where do you love to get your nosh on?
JT: My favorite local business is Giacomo’s. It’s this tiny little food place on 72nd next to the [West End Superette] bodega. It was the first place my daughter was allowed to go by herself. She became coffee-obsessed at an embarrassingly young age and she would go buy coffee there. I take great pleasure in supporting a business like that.
Another one of our favorite stores is what we call the Pink Awning Store even though it hasn’t had a pink awning for like 15 years. Stationery & Toy on 72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam. It’s just an amazing store. Whatever you’re looking for, they always have.
WSR: What is the perfect UWS day for you?
JT: I like good rather than perfect. I love taking Breezy to the dog run early in the morning. Just to watch him tear around with the other dogs gives me great pleasure. Then it would be nice to go to the JCC with my wife and work out. And then she has a real job, so she goes to work and I just go back to the apartment. I’d work for a while, get lunch at Giacomo’s and when it’s time to get ready for “Situation Room,” walk down to CNN. That’s a good day.
WSR: What’s Wolf Blitzer really like?
Wolf and Anderson [Cooper] are two of the most sane people you’ll ever meet, which is unusual for television stars. They are relentlessly normal. And that vibe spreads through the entire network. There is no reward for eccentricity at CNN.
WSR: What’s the distinguishing characteristic of an Upper West Sider?
I don’t know. I’m a journalist, but I don’t think I’m the most observant person on the world. I don’t have a picture in my mind of what an Upper West Sider is. But I just did a piece in the New Yorker about [Congressman] Jerry Nadler, and if I were looking for a hardcore Upper West Sider, he’s a pretty good example.
WSR: What’s the biggest misconception about the UWS? What do people get wrong about it?
JT: Do people have conceptions at all about the UWS?
WSR: I think so.
JT: Really? Well, I think it used be known as kind of bookish, liberal and insular. Now, I think it’s too expensive to be bookish. Though I heard Shakespeare & Company is coming back.
WSR: They are.
JT: I think the UWS’s uniqueness, it’s a lot more similar to the Upper East Side than it used to be. But again, I don’t want to give the impression that everything used to be better. Everything did not used to be better.
WSR: Thanks for taking time today. Your schedule has been SO leisurely…
JT: It’s been crazy. All Trump all the time. And the Supreme Court. The pace of news has been more relentless than any period I can remember. I’m also working on a book about the Mueller investigation.
WSR: But you have to wait until the report is issued, right?
JT: Yes, I do.
WSR: Do you know when it’s coming?!
JT: No. No, I don’t.
WSR: A lot of people are in a fugue state of nervous anxiety about the political situation. Got any prescription for coping better?
JT: It’s okay to take news vacations. A week, two weeks. I don’t have that luxury, but I think news vacations are not a bad idea. There will be a new crisis in two weeks, and you’ll have had some Zen moments in the interim.
“Why the West Side” is a series of interviews with Upper West Siders that was created by lead columnist Eileen Katz.
The intro says the interview was edited for clarity. I can’t imagine Jeff Toobin being edited for clarity; he is the most lucid talking head on TV.
I do apologize for mugging him all those many years ago when we were kids.
Great interview. It’s refreshing to finally read somebody acknowledging that the UWS used to be a grimy and dangerous area but is now a nice and safe neighborhood.
I guess gentrification has its positive sides.
Incidentally, I’ve seen Mr Toobin many times walking around the neighborhood and I enjoy watching him on CNN.
Great interview WSR, Jeff Toobin has lived my life except for the1940’s and 50’s. where his generation had a 5 dollar bill in
their pockets to avoid a beating in the park, my generation at the most caried a nickle or dime for the same reason. He went to PS 166, i went to PS 165 and JHS 54. Riverside drive is where we played baseball and basketball, now I just go to the\
dock at 69th street for peace and tranquility while I get a little
sun whle I red a book….
Now that I know what you look like I will be scouring dogs to see if I can find yours. My husband always lived on the upper west side. He went to Stuyvesant and Columbia. I will not bother you, but I will keep my eyes open.
They also filmed a sailboat(!) on West End Avenue for the movie, “Romancing the Stone.”
Yes! I remember this. It is during the final scene of the movie and the closing credits.
Such a classic movie too….Michael Douglas in his prime, Kathleen Turner and the the always brilliant Danny Devito.
No “must haves” from Zabars?! I highly recommend the “Healthy Chicken Salad.”
Zabars question is boring and predictable. Soooo uws….
I really enjoyed reading this interview! I love when folks, famous or just regular average normal people talk about their neighborhood. I live on the UWS and only really see my neighbors around 11PM on a weeknight when they’re walking their dog and at my local polling place on election day! Mostly, I just see the nannys pushing strollers around during the day and lots of seniors riding on buses. Construction workers smoking on the job. Tourists getting lost after visiting the AMNH. David Lee Roth living on CPW.
So agree about missing The All State and Royale Bakery!!
All State! My husband and I still mourn its passing.
That dog is a cutie-pie. I guess the interview was good, too.
I think he is a brilliant writer and the interview (which is very well done) makes him seem like a very nice, down-to-earth guy, but I will always have trouble getting past the Greenfield situation. I hate to judge, but that was pretty egregious.
Agreed. As we have learned a lot lately through me too, there are a lot of people who are very talented at what they do and seem very virtuous but no one is perfect.
That was so nice of JT to share. I like this newspaper! just moved here from Kansas
So glad to see Jeffrey Toobin embrace the positive changes to the Upper West Side instead of pining away for the “edge” of the days of graffiti and muggings.
Love JT’s opinions on CNN. If he says it, I believe it. Thank goodness for people like him trying to keep us apprised of the craziness in which we struggle.
The apricot rugulach at the Royale bakery were arguably even better than the raspberry! And the cheese rugulach! Oh, I miss that place. And remember Famous Dairy on 72nd, roughly across the street from Royale? The best blintzes ever! And Gitlitz, on Broadway and 77th, the best tongue sandwiches in the world. And Levy Brothers Stationery store…
Loved reading this and love reading all he writes. Thank you so much for the interview.
Loved the interview and always enjoy JT’s insights on TV. And, so nice to read about someone else whose childhood memories are only a few blocks away from where he now lives When I walk by the apartment building where I was born (now a FED EX office across from Columbia gates and through the playground on Riverside park (9 blocks south from where I now live on Riverside) I get a thrill thinking that this is where I came to “be”. I know there are many of us in the neighborhood who have similar experiences. Thanks for such a nice ?read”. (And love the “pink awning store too)
“…change is part of living here. It’s part of the organic process of a successful city.”
And I just stayed with your “O”s. Is this the view from your economic class?
Please tell me these myths don’t get on CNN.
Re: “Is this the view from your economic class?”
Oh, jeeez, can we PLEASE drop the Class-War nonsense? The UWS is a healthy, vibrant neighborhood partly b/c there are lots of wealthier, well-educated, and civically-aware people like Mr. Toobin.
Many of whom DO send their children to local public schools (like PS 199), AND can afford to donate when there is a need for funds not forthcoming from the DoE.
And their presence has little or no effect on the economic health of the neighborhood. There are still lots of inexpensive restaurants, inexpensive local theater, etc. Wealthier residents do NOT drive out the fabled “Mom-and-Pop” stores…rising rents do that!
Finally, it’s the wealthier residents who ARE able to donate to essential organizations like Central Park Conservancy, Friends of Hudson River Park, Landmark West, etc.
The analogous situation is Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard…places home to BOTH the very-wealthy AND the very-ordinary…all co-existing peacefully.
Scooter Stan said:
“Oh, jeeez, can we PLEASE drop the Class-War nonsense? The UWS is a healthy, vibrant neighborhood partly b/c there are lots of wealthier, well-educated, and civically-aware people like Mr. Toobin.”
The UWS was always known for politically aware and “civically aware” people. Only recently was that connected to wealth in the minds of a few.
I have no idea what Jeff Toobin’s wealth level is, so i will leave him out of this. But it is Scooter Stan’s statement that is “Class Warfare.”
And by the way, Toobin expressed regret in the interview that the UWS had become more homogenous by race and class.
Go into the public housing projects on the UWS and you will find loads of”civically aware” and community minded people. Similarly you will find these among rent stabilized tenants. So let’s stop attributing this to the influx of very very rich.
by the way, apparently Scooter Stan is not aware that there is now an affordable housing crisis on Cape Cod. I have immediate family there, so i know. The housing situation in many of the towns on the Cape has changed immensely over the last 30 years.
Jeffrey made me chuckle. I moved to the Upper West Side in 1972, when no one would move her and my friends from the east side refused to come across town to visit. By the time we got to the 80s I was feeling it was really safe compared to what I moved in to.
As A former upper West Sider or I can only tell you how much I continue to miss it since I left in 1991. I am and always will be an upper West sider. Even though I was born in Baltimore Maryland. This is a lovely article. Thank you for it.
You got to be kidding!
You join along with “I’d like to see greater diversity in terms of income and ethnicity. I’d like to see more independent stores and fewer chains. But I don’t have a lot of complaints.”
That diversity was pushed out! (Probably when you arrived.)
And PS 199! Isn’t that THE MOST SEGREGATED school in the Country! Doesn’t even reflect the neighborhood demographics BY INTENTION.
“Wealthier residents do NOT drive out the fabled “Mom-and-Pop” stores…rising rents do that!” The “wealthier residents” CAUSED the rising rents.
And finally this TOTAL LIE: “The analogous situation is Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard…places home to BOTH the very-wealthy AND the very-ordinary…all co-existing peacefully.”
I personally know local people who have been priced out of THE HOMES THEY LIVED IN by rent-gauging.
I am trying to open some eyes, but enjoy the consequences of you myopia.