Time Travel to the Upper West Side Circa 1968 via Fascinating Documentary Streaming on Vimeo

“Summer in the City” still (Photos courtesy of Michael Blackwood Productions)

By Joy Bergmann

What’s changed and what hasn’t? 

A new year always prompts reflection. But this time around, I’m looking in a different rearview mirror, stretching back 53 years instead of 365 days: “Summer in the City,” a slice-of-life documentary shot in 1968 on the Upper West Side. 

Here’s the trailer at Vimeo-on-Demand, where the film rents for $2.99:

 

Made for German television by directors Christian Blackwood and Robert Leacock, “Summer in the City” offers an outsider-insider’s perspective on the neighborhood. 

Christian and his producer brother Michael Blackwood were born in Berlin before moving to the UWS in 1949, says Ben Blackwood, Michael’s son and current CEO of Michael Blackwood Productions. [Their original surname, Schwarzwald, appears in the credits.] Uwe Johnson, a distinguished German writer who lived on the UWS for several years while working as a textbook editor, wrote the narration once the film was edited. 

Before viewing, a bit of historical context. 

Housing was, as always, a pivotal concern. By 1968, tenements in the San Juan Hill neighborhood had been razed as part of Robert Moses’s “urban renewal” plans, making way for Lincoln Center and Lincoln Towers. Meanwhile, public housing developments like Frederick Douglass Houses welcomed thousands of new tenants. 

The Vietnam War raged, as did heroin use. Pollution left the city sooty, the Hudson devoid of fish. And racial inequality was, as now, painfully evident. 

But “Summer in the City” isn’t some negative newsreel; it’s a revelation. 

Mixed in with the strife are ebullient scenes of everyday life. Children play stickball and in hydrants. Their parents dance and sing at block parties. Seniors dine. Lovers make out in Central Park. Youth compete in a drag “ball.” Lives start; lives end. 

I spent a few enjoyable hours trying to decipher the film’s locations, and hope WSR readers can improve my list below. 

What do you remember? What’s different and what’s enduring about the Upper West Side? Where do we go from here? 

[Note:  Parental discretion advised. The film contains graphic drug use, violence at protests and some nudity. Hat-tip to The New Yorker for alerting me to its existence. ] 

**

SUMMER IN THE CITY:  Location Hunt

0:10  Block party; seems like Riverside to West End, but where

2:58  Aerial view 96th and Amsterdam; Holy Name of Jesus and St. Gregory’s Church

3:50  Bench sitters, Verdi Square 72nd and Amsterdam?

4:30  Riverside Park

5:12  Large cafeteria on Broadway? Don’t think it’s Schrafft’s or Tip Toe Inn

7:00  330 West End Avenue, senior hotel 

10:16 Central Park 

13:53  Street dance, rally with Peace & Freedom party, 81st St just west of Columbus 

17:11  Chico’s apartment

18:53  Businesses near Amsterdam & 82nd 

39:10  24th Precinct roll call

39:53  Subway voyage from 81st St

41:55  City Hall protest re: welfare reforms

50:58  Jeanette Washington apartment

56:11  24th Precinct commander discusses UWS

59:09  Family walking near 95th/96th and Broadway 

1:01:43  Family apartment 

1:06:00  Hydrant near school, Amsterdam & 84th 

1:06:40  Christian singers on corner

1:07:50  Schoolyard 84th & Amsterdam

1:08:09  Grace Methodist Church on 104th Street? 

1:08:16  Guitarist singing in street

1:09:23  Street gathering; domino game

1:11:28  EMS transport man called Peter from street

1:13:53  Youth apartment; 42 W. something 

1:18:17  Drag competition at ballroom venue 253-267 W. something 

1:24:23  Wedding – Holy Name St. Gregory’s church?   

ART, COLUMNS, HISTORY | 14 comments | permalink
    1. Lily Goldstein says:

      This looks fabulous! It starts in 1968, a few years before I started CCNY and during the time I ate in Famous Dairy regularly on W. 72nd street! Saw movies at The New Yorker movie theatre. Went to the Second Stage on Broadway.

      These are the times that I miss. For me, life was better, slower, less distracted and more open. I wish we could have it back but, Move On.

      Lily Goldstein

      • JaneW says:

        Talk about depressing—between the heavy smokers and the drug dealers! I’m glad this era is behind us!

    2. Maria says:

      About 39 seconds in looks like a synagogue where a man is putting on phyllacteries (tefilin).

    3. Brett says:

      The film is also available on Kanopy for free, if you have access to it (NYPL used to allow access to Kanopy, but canceled it several years ago).

      I highly recommend Uwe Johnson’s two volume book Anniversaries (available from NYRB Books), part of which is a daily recounting of activities in NYC during 1967-68. The protagonist lives in Cliff House, at 96th and Riverside, and much of the book is a time capsule of that neighborhood at the time, including the Paris Hotel swimming pool/bar (confusingly named The Marseille in the book) and the three movie theaters at the northwest corner of B’way and 96th, razed and replaced by The Columbia condo building.

      • Abe Goteiner says:

        Three movie theatres at 96th and Broadway? Know the Riviera and Riverside. What’s the third one? Symphony and Thalia at 95th.

      • MaryC says:

        I remember two movie theaters on Broadway 96-97st. They were the Riverside and the Riviera. I don’t think there was a third. There were other businesses on the block too.

    4. High School Senior Year (1968), North Jersey:

      1. Buy copy of the (Dorothy Schiff) NY Post

      2. Go to homeroom, consult the movie section, from the Village to 181st Street; circling interesting sounding movies (The Fifth Horseman is Fear, The Pawnbroker, A Thousand Clowns, What’s New Pussycat? The Flight of the Phoenix, The Leather Boys, The Trap (Rita!!! Oliver!) Etc.) PAGES of listings!! DOZENS of Palaces happy to take my 2 dollars!

      3. Ditch math, in fact ditch the rest of the day: stash books, get on the bus; east on Route 4.

      4. 20 minutes later Manhattan (and heaven) begins; double features in new & revival houses… The Elgin, The Thalia,… oh man, The Sacred Names in memory’s core: the colorful dream houses where I could forget for a few hours my painful Jersey existence…

      5. Eventually, eyes still chockablock with Stars… back to the grind; old bus station on 168th St. and my come down/re-integration with gray actuality.

      6. Eventually told by one of those in authority that no one ever cut more classes
      and entire days and yet… somehow still graduated.

      I don’t know why I’m proud of that, yet there it is.

      So thanks for the momentary yet overwhelming
      return of those wonderful dark afternoons, sharing dreams in plush Palaces with crowds of hidden strangers and a little popcorn…

      Life was never to be as good again, though in future I’d circle the earth in search of the same intensity of similar joys…

      And where the lesson at last is: we’re only young once.

      • fellow NYer says:

        Lawrence, thank you for this wonderful snap shot of your Sr year high school. You should be proud!

    5. Steevie says:

      I just watched the movie. The overarching sense is that the Upper West Side was then a place of pathology. The director has a segment of about fifteen minutes of people injecting themselves with heroin. There are also long segments of people at political protests including at City Hall where they angrily demand improved welfare. There are scenes of old people vegetating in shabby senior citizen hotels. There is also a very long segment of men getting ready for a transvestite ball with much arguing and fighting once they get there. Throughout the movie when people are interviewed, they often seem to be intoxicated or speak nonsensically. People who viewed this film on German television must have had an awful impression of the Upper West Side of Manhattan

    6. Well, cool… I will look.
      At Columbia, we had just had the 700+ arrests after the occupation of the buildings on campus— 116th Street, Morningside Heights.
      RFK and MLK had been killed…
      France exploded.
      I did an article for German media then but it was not published. My Italian buddy Tiziano Terzani was around— now he is gone.
      Summer ’68— we started the plan for the University Senate at Columbia and it still runs! 🙂
      Thank you very much!
      Neal Hugh Hurwitz, CU Faculty then, Public Law & Government, with Roger Hilsman.

    7. Sally says:

      The movie theaters at 96th and B’way used to be Music Halls. In the late 1980’s an elderly gentleman used to hang out and chat with the gardeners at 91st in RSD Park. He would talk about going to burlesque, musical shows and magic shows in the late 1910s,20s and 30s. Alas he disappeared and I assumed he had died.

    8. Victor Amerling says:

      I was born at BI in 1952. Lived on the UWS till I was forty. Attended PS 87, JHS 44,and Brandeis HS. It was a great childhood, ethnically culturally, and economically diverse. The UWS and Greenwich Village were the tip of the spear of the counter culture and I have regaled my kids with stories of how everything they think is cool started with us.

      • Wait… “it started with us?” Really? None of this “standing on the shoulders of giants” for you?

        So no credit goes to the Beats? For Ginsberg & Kerouac, Corso and Burroughs? And what about the Post-War Abstract Expressionists, who wrested the crown of the art world for NYC from Paris??

        I mean, decade by decade you could go back to at least the mid-19th century in this way, to hail Walt Whitman, the Hudson River School, Washington Irving…

        We didn’t start anything, frankly; maybe a little embellishing around the edges… but we did (and do) live among titans who endlessly shake this world, who are connected to & in part powered by the ever bubbling-up tectonic energy of these our New York Islands, which is always rumbling just beneath the surface… just feel it…