By Caitlin Hawke
At the age of 34, in her Lockheed Vega, Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic without stopping, a feat she accomplished twice in 1932, becoming the first person with this distinction. Her place in aviation history is well known. Not so for another young aviator from New York City, Elinor Smith, who was born 14 years after Earhart in 1911. At the age of 16, Smith became the youngest person to be licensed as a pilot by the U.S. government. On October 21, 1928, in a stunt born out of a dare, she took the East River by storm in a Waco 10 biplane, which she flew under all four of its bridges.
Both of these aviation pioneers called the Upper West Side home. Earhart lived at 106 Morningside Avenue and Smith at 390 Riverside Drive. Their stories and those of about 600 other former “notable” Upper West Siders are collected in a recent book by neighborhood author Jim Mackin. Called “Notable New Yorkers of Manhattan’s Upper West Side,” it was published by Fordham University Press, late last year.
Limiting himself to the neighborhoods known as Bloomingdale and Morningside Heights, roughly from W. 96th to W. 125th Streets, Mackin identified over 1,400 potential notable Upper West Siders over the course of his research. He collected vignettes about any former UWS residents of note that he could identify: artists, sports figures, heads of state, Supreme Court justices and gangsters. Many of the people featured in the book are household names, but not ones regularly associated with the Upper West Side:
Marcus Garvey, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles.
George Carlin, Barack Obama, Humphrey Bogart.
Carole King, Maya Angelou.
Just before going to press, Mackin was able to confirm rumors that “High Priestess of Soul” and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone lived in Bloomingdale for a time. She arrived in New York in 1958 and found success in the early 1960s club scene of Greenwich Village. One of Simone’s signature songs was “I Loves You, Porgy,” from the opera Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin, who lived at 316 W. 103rd Street and are also featured in Mackin’s book. Of course, one of the world’s greatest jazz singers, Billie Holiday, had made the song her signature roughly 20 years earlier. Holiday, too, is featured as a resident of the “Old Community” – a neighborhood that was demolished to make way for Park West Village.
This daunting volume of research was a perfect fit for Mackin, a completist by nature. He’s traveled to at least 50 countries and all 50 states in between training for five New York Marathons, including the first and last ones run completely in Central Park. So while he dug up 1,400 interesting stories, he was faced with leaving 800 on the cutting room floor. He resolved that by creating a database of all his findings. This resolves the ultimate frustration of someone who can’t leave a stone unturned; when Mackin stumbles on new notables, they can go straight onto the site.
You can hear Jim Mackin speak about his book this evening — Tuesday, February 16th, at 5:30 p.m. on Zoom. The event is presented by the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group and also features local historian, Matthew Spady, who has written recently about Audubon Park up near W. 158th Street. Yes, the park is named for that Audubon. Matthew’s book is titled The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot. Fred Nachbaur, director of Fordham University Press, will moderate. All are welcome to view the livestream via the link posted here. www.upperwestsidehistory.org
Editor’s Note: To read Caitlin’s Q & A with Jim Mackin click through to her blog: w102-103blockassn.org/blog
Caitlin Hawke contributes occasionally to West Side Rag. She is a long-time resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood of the Upper West Side where she writes a regular blog for the W. 102-103 Streets Block Association, featuring history, local issues and neighbors. Check it out here: w102-103blockassn.org/blog.