Weekend Column: Amsterdam Avenue, Frank Sinatra, and Me

83rd and Amsterdam, circa 2019.

By Denise Webster

I was 12 years old when I first visited New York City. It helped to have an adventurous, glamorous Aunt and Uncle introduce me to its magic but, even in my childish romanticism, I knew. This was a city that seemed to challenge and excite my heart. So, throughout my life, I returned often. For a few days or a few weeks. For work or to visit a friend. It came to be that I would “theme” the focus of my visits…the shopping trip, the museum walkabouts, the salute to Broadway, the Holiday celebration.  There was always a reason to believe.

At this point, I should mention that I am now in my late 60s. As all older people attest, I do not feel my age. I have often been accused of not acting my age. Let’s just say that, at the risk of sounding like a schmalzy version of that Frank Sinatra song (sorry, my Mother was a huge fan and he seems to always pop up), my life has had its ups and downs in my attempt to do it “my way”. Honestly, these last 10 years have been the hardest. Not what I had planned or imagined. Lots of loss. Some of it my fault; most because life surprises, disappoints, and ends–leaving those left behind to sort through it all. But, this story is about New York and Amsterdam Avenue. And I do believe that even Mr. Sinatra found it necessary to sing the praises and impact of “New York, New York!”

Here is the thing about New York and me. There is this unspoken connection that I belong. It challenges with the possibilities of the unknown and yet it always allows the confidence of knowing I would be safe; free to simply be and enjoy. That is why I have spent a lifetime continually yearning to return.

Then, in my early 60s, I actually got to live in the city. With my loyal and loving dog alongside, I was fortunate enough to spend two summers in the Upper West Side. A friend of a friend left the city from May to September and offered me her apartment during this time. I had just begun a virtual fine art business so I also saw this as a perfect opportunity to promote my company and have some art showings as well. I visualized myself becoming a bona fide, working New Yorker. I jumped — no, leaped with gusto — at the possibility.

My “home” became an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and, to me, it was perfect. Friends asked how could I stand the noise, the crowds, the busy-ness of it all. Yes, I heard the sirens and the honking taxis, but together with the sounds of conversations, the subterranean hisses oozing from the subway, and the musicians serenading…it was all a glorious symphony that became the soundtrack of my New York life. I loved the diversity, the energy. I lived one block away from the Museum of Natural History and the beauty of Central Park. In the opposite direction, a few blocks west, was Riverside Park. And infused along my paths was a richness of architectural beauty. Perfect indeed!!

The Upper West Side offered a sense of neighborhood. Within days of my arrival, I introduced myself to the local wash and fold. I shopped amongst a bounty of grocery stores and found my favorite cookie bakery. My dog and I would spend days with no planned course–just up and down brownstone-lined streets. All along, speaking to bellmen stationed at entries of elegant high rises, unabashedly chasing fireflies, racing for shelter amidst a summer downpour, and quietly sitting alongside sculpted statues that inspired. As my knowledge and confidence expanded, I rode the bus and subway with a familiar ease. I took classes in midtown, visited museums, and attended lectures and shows (on and off-off Broadway) throughout the city. It came to be that tourists would stop me and ask for directions or a recommendation of restaurants. It was the ultimate compliment. I was indeed a local!

Yes, as each September drew near, I wanted to stay and inquired about costs–only to be discouraged by high rents, especially in the Upper West Side. I hoped that my business would allow me a financial entry towards permanence. But it was not meant to be. So, I left. They were not easy goodbyes.

Now… fast forward to 2021. Like the rest of the world, I was in pandemic lockdown. I spent my days in isolation, reading, writing, watching endless streaming.  In my continued effort to keep informed about New York news, I started to read that the lower rents and affordability of living may be within reach. I contacted a realtor, referenced by a friend.

“This is what I can afford. I know it is not much but I thought I would ask, given the situation in the city. If you tell me that I am crazy and still priced out, I will thank you for your time and accept it.” I also asked the realtor if these lower prices were regulated. “I cannot move and then discover a huge rent increase as prices return to normal.”

“Rent increases are regulated in NY state. You should be fine. Where do you want to live?”

“Well, I love all of New York.”

“No, be specific. Where in New York do you want to live?”

Without hesitation, I stated the obvious dream, “The Upper West Side”.

“I am looking at 60 apartments in your price range. I will send you links. We will find you a place”.

As time went on, I “looked” at so many apartments. Some scary, some with potential and a few that actually might work. I knew this move would be expensive and logistically challenging. I started to become philosophical about living vs. living the dream. I questioned my age (Was I too old to do this?), my perspective (How realistic were my past stays in NYC?), my sense of risk (Can I really do this or should I just play it safe?). I got advice that ranged from daring me to move (ironically from some people who did just the opposite in their lives) to harsh evaluations of my sanity (“You’re crazy.”) to the actual realists who said it was still too financially risky.

Prices were starting to go up so I expanded the boundaries of the search to include the East Side and further North. Then air travel opened up, I got my COVID vaccines, and I realized that I needed to go and find out for myself. And, before I knew it, I was in a cab heading down Amsterdam Avenue to my hotel. And, as the search got serious, reality sunk in.

“Is that a cockroach in the bathtub?”

“The hallway looks and smells like a fraternity on a Saturday night”

“There is THE Riverside Drive and there is THIS Riverside Drive. Doesn’t the UWS end at 110th?”

Then, on a cab ride through Central Park, the real estate agent said, “There is one other on Amsterdam Avenue that I want to show you.” And…to my amazement, the apartment was directly across the street from my summer place. Every time I had looked out the window, I looked upon this building!! (I have pictures; one emulating Tony and Maria’s fire escape, which I entitled, “My West Side Story”). Can this be? Did the universe just open up and present me with the ultimate gift? Again, corny as it was, Frank Sinatra started to echo in my head, “A brand new start of it, in old New York”. My heart started to race.

Photograph by Peter C.

The apartment itself turned out to be a close replica of the one that I once lived in – only smaller. But that was do-able.  I was floating on air. This was it!! Then the hard question had to be asked as I noticed the fine print.

“Can you please explain gross rent?”

“It just means the rent will go up in a year to the rent that they want to charge.”

Still workable.

“So…after a new, higher lease, then what? Does it then go up, aligned with the state regulated increase?”

Silence.

“Well…this is not a government regulated apartment so the landlord is free to increase”.

“Well, pre pandemic, this rent was pretty high. Is that the goal—to go back to that higher rent?”

“You can ask them not to raise the rent. If you are a good tenant, they might not. There is nothing I can do. That is the risk.”

I could not believe it. I knew the writing was on the wall. I ran the numbers. I tried to figure out how to make it work long term. It would be a risk. An expensive risk at a time of life when the final chapter must be carefully written and planned.  Twenty years earlier I would have jumped at this, hell be damned. But, now, suddenly, I felt old. With the years and the possibilities seriously diminished, the option to dare was uncertain and frightening.

And, just as suddenly as it presented itself, the doors slammed shut on Amsterdam Avenue. Once again, I had to leave the city. This departure was the hardest.

Here is the reality of aging. The past is the past. My dog, my joyous companion, is gone. Friends and family are gone. I am retired, past the prospect of viable career journeys. Sometimes, the emptiness of such loss is palpable. I tell myself that I am grateful for what once was. I tell myself I will be fine. And I will be. That is what survivors do.

But old survivors remember. They look back in order to come through it all with a sense of acceptance.

So, every now and then, especially when the seasons become warmer and full of light, I close my eyes to recapture the glow of fireflies, to see my sweet dog running through Central Park, to feel the warmth of a summer rain. I recall the times when I was happy and invincible on Amsterdam Avenue. And again, Mr. Sinatra is in my head. I listen with gratitude and joy.  “To think I did all that. And may I say…I did it my way”.

COLUMNS | 24 comments | permalink
    1. Margret says:

      Beautiful tale, so lucky to be here two blocks away from this story and able to hold on a little longer at the age of 77.

    2. EdNY says:

      Nice story. But anyone could have told you that it is virtually impossible to get a rent-regulated apartment anymore. You’re at the mercy of the landlord when it comes to renegotiating a lease renewal. That’s the unfortunate reality today.

    3. W Veery says:

      I’m not sure it’s over just yet for you, potential neighbor. It sounds like you perhaps relied too much on a broker. If you do a search on how to find a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City, you will find a great deal of information and legitimate resources on this topic. I encourage you to spend some of that endless streaming time on some research. I bet with some persistence it will pay off. Then perhaps you can make an appointment with one of our local humane societies, and save and find a furry neighbor/roommate. If you do, please update here. I wish you the best of luck!

    4. Josh P. says:

      It’s a shame that the NIMBYs have made living on the Upper West Side an unaffordable, unattainable dream for so many people. Change is inevitable, one way or another. We can preserve a neighborhoods buildings, or you can preserve its community. Unfortunately we’ve chosen the look over the soul.

      • Not Born Yesterday says:

        Uh there are over a dozen luxury towers going up on Broadway between 72 and 103 but yeah sure keep up that line of magical thinking and ignore three decades of rampant deregulation

        • Josh P. says:

          For some reason people feel like the neighborhood is undergoing a major construction boom when in reality, the population of the Upper West Side hasn’t grown in at least 50 years.
          1970: 212,422
          1980: 206,669
          1990: 210,993
          2000: 207,699
          2010: 209,084
          http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/census/census2010/t_pl_p1_cd.pdf
          From 2010 to 2019 the city issued fewer than 4,000 new housing permits in the neighborhood, which would bring us just about even with the 1970 population level.
          https://furmancenter.org/neighborhoods/view/upper-west-side
          For every tower that goes up, there are multiple brownstones that get converted from apartments to single family mansions. We need to build just to keep from losing units. If we want to actually lower prices we need to build more.

    5. geoff says:

      whatever happened to ‘key money’?

    6. nemo paradise says:

      Tenants want to pay 1990 rents but landlords pay 2021 bills.

    7. Richard says:

      Lovely story, well told. But I would certainly consider getting another dog! You might be pleasantly surprised at the joy he/she will bring you.

    8. Milton Staud says:

      What a beautiful article. My wife and I have been visiting New York City for over 40 years and have been endlessly fascinated with it. We’ve also lived at or near the poverty line all this time and got to see New York quite often because we worked for a tour company. We thought we were reading something we would have wrote. Thanks so much.

    9. Farrah Khan says:

      I feel this, entirely. This woman wrote as if she was speaking my heart and my own feelings and experience.

    10. lynn says:

      This line really jumped out at me, “An expensive risk at a time of life when the final chapter must be carefully written and planned.”

      I’ve been an obsessively careful planner my entire life, but after March of 2020 and I had to face the realization that all of my planning was literally for nothing.

      I think you should take another shot at living on the UWS if it means that much to you. And definitely get another pet! 🙂

    11. UWS says:

      Beautiful article. It sounds like you want it badly enough to make it work. I also encourage you to look for rent-stabilized apartments. It may take some time and some oomph but I am pulling for you.

    12. David says:

      And, before I knew it, I was in a cab heading down Amsterdam Avenue to my hotel.
      Wrong. A’dam goes uptown. NY’rs have a truer sense of direction.

      • Huh says:

        Nice catch.
        Amsterdam Avenue is two-way above 110th street so it is possible, but is that what the author meant?

      • Boris says:

        Down is not a direction. As in the phrase ‘down that road’.

        • Steevie says:

          She says that air travel had just opened up and she was on her way to her hotel. If you land at LaGuardia, you go over the Triborough Bridge to 125th, down 125th to Amsterdam which is 2-way street to 110th. Not a bad way to go. The car in the picture is the advertising car of the Hi-Life bar/restaurant on Amsterdam and 83rd.

    13. Rebecca L says:

      I transplanted to NYC at 59 years old, after 21 years in one place (the longest I’d spent in one town, even my parents’ house). I’m a little further uptown – in Morningside Heights/West Harlem (though I work at Lincoln Center). To be fair, I was retiring from one job & taking on another, so my finances were a little more stable than the author’s. But I’ve never been happier. My parents were native New Yorkers who moved to the west coast in the late 40s. I’ve brought the family full circle. I just wish they’d lived to see it.

    14. Senior says:

      Isn’t the city building some affordable and/or subsidized housing for Seniors on West 79h Street? Maybe worth finding out about.
      During the pandemic their has been a moratorium on evictions, rent freezes and increases, etc. Taxes and expenses for landlords have remained steady and/or increased.
      Thanks for the lovely article. I do hope you can come back to the UWS.

      Most UWS are not simply wealthy NIMBYs. Most have lead here for many years and are trying to live off of fixed incomes and/or retirement funds.Stop blamin and let’s come up with solutions.
      We all have made compromises as we age. I do hope

    15. Citygirl says:

      I certainly understand your love of the upper west side and NYC. I have lived in NYC my entire life but only a resident of the upper west side since 1999. Unlike you and many others, I realized I needed to earn lots of money (which was doable for me since I was blessed with an exceptional work ethic) and save lots of the money I earned until I could afford to live in Manhattan. I didn’t ask anyone to help me. I didn’t search for affordable housing. I didn’t look for ridiculous low rent and then complain that it wasn’t the perfect apartment. No, I just worked very hard for many many years and then finally one day I was able to do it! It wasn’t easy. Whatever happened to that wonderful story… you know the one I just described? It was up to me and me alone. And I did it, with many difficulties and obstacles along the way.

    16. E Kelly says:

      I lived in NYC as a child; this article resonates how I now feel as an 80 year old adult! My heart aches for Central Park, the Flat Iron Bldg, all of it!!!

      Thank you for the memories.

    17. DrM says:

      OMG. West Side Rag you have to help us here. I, too, was a dreamer of a life in NYC since I was a child, before I even understood what or where it was. I blame Sesame Street. 🤣. But mid-life I started college, changed careers and was presented with the opportunity to live wherever I wanted. 3 days after I graduated (8 years after I started, already sporting grey hair and wrinkles) I moved into my first apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. I am the poster child for ‘It’s never too late’. WSR, can you please help connect me with this woman? She needs to talk to a real, transplanted New Yorker who loves this city as much as she does. And she needs to know it’s never too late to grab that dream.

    18. ny10023 says:

      it’s never too late.

      don’t rely on a broker.

      make it happen, believe in it & it will.

      still plenty of great deals out there!

      along with plenty of dogs that either need fostering or adopted.

      never give up!