by Jules Watson
I moved to 325 W. 75th Street on a hot sweaty August afternoon in 1977 with my Mom and my little brother Michael when I was twelve.
The scent of old brick and wood and somehow a trace of French perfume enveloped the brownstone stairwell and if I close my eyes the fragrance still wraps itself around me.
The early evening light on Riverside Park, as I turned the corner from West End Avenue hundreds of times over my young life, was a wash of gold, with a hint of Willy Wonka magic thrown in.
My brother’s room had a small curved balcony and on summer evenings we would climb through the window on the third floor and listen to the wind in the trees and wonder what the future had in store for us.
The Upper West Side in the Seventies and Eighties was alive with endless enthusiasm and humor and families and food and I was instantly and endlessly in love.
From the Texas burger at the counter at Big Nick’s “rare and the egg over easy please”,
to my first taste of spicy ginger chicken at Ying on Columbus, where Tina the owner would sit with us, and tell us about her day as a head makeup artist at ABC, and then ask the chef to make us special dishes,
to dinner at the Museum Cafe under the stars seated across the street from The Great Dinosaur Hall,
to the amazing Sunday ritual, like the Sabbath, of standing on line at the fish counter at Zabar’s,
to Philly cheesesteaks at the tiny noisy dirty hole in the wall next to the laundromat on 75th Street,
to the boneless chicken with yellow rice and hot sauce from La Caridad,
It was all, the whole experience, just divine.
I got my new shoes for back to school at Harry’s,
and I got an A+ on my first essay about the planetarium at The Museum of Natural History.
Wandering through Central Park
on the weekends was incredible people watching;
The beautiful Europeans here on holiday, achingly chic.
The man with the cellophane iridescent balloons floating against impossibly blue skies.
And the music, oh my God, the music in the Park everywhere.
The saxophone players and the guitarists and the drummers
and the pianists seduced my young being like a snake charmer.
In those teenage years we always found some excuse for a sleepover date wherever parents happened to be out of town, which meant that we would find ourselves knee-deep at the hottest celebrity hang out, Cafe Central, on Columbus Avenue and 80th, or drinking banana daiquiris at Nanny Rose.
I fell viciously in love with all things vintage at Screaming Mimi‘s and scoured the flea market on 77th St. for lace mini dresses with baby blue satin empire bows from the 60s and worn in leather motorcycle jackets.
My first Mason Pearson brush came from Apthorp Pharmacy which was a treasure chest of trinkets and beauty supplies.
I spent the majority of my time with my hair slicked back in a bun at The Gulf and Western building where I was a student at American Ballet Theatre on West 62nd Street.
Baryshnikov was the Creative Director at that time and the hot and steamy collective crush that every young student had on him was palpable.
We stared down on him in Company class and in rehearsal and if we were lucky we got tickets to opening night where he thrilled us beyond anything we would ever know.
The glamour of the fountain at Lincoln Center at night was overwhelming.
We ate warm mussel and spinach salad in Dijon creme sauce at dinner afterwards at The Saloon where the waiters and waitresses whizzed by at dizzying speed on rollerskates, with their sexy limitless energy as the music played and the people swayed.
I remember holding my breath as I saw the murals at Café des Artistes for the first time, bathed in the emerald green light they cast on the sophisticated and wildly stylish crowd.
if you timed it right, when you bought a dozen bagels at H&H they would give you the 13th bagel for free, whatever was hot.
Life went on in this way throughout high school.
My first apartments after high school were all between West 65th and West 79th St.
And then suddenly my attention shifted and I moved downtown for a long long time.
Life has a funny way of flowing, like a river, and 26 years later I am now back living on West End Avenue in a magnificent building with my amazing husband where every day, everywhere I go, everywhere I look, I see my young self and the memories flood in, and the anticipation of revisiting these places, like old friends, grabs a hold of me like the wind that whips off the river in winter.
There is Shakespeare and Co. where dozens of books invaded my virgin mind and where I can’t wait to browse the aisles again.
There is The Beacon where I will disappear into the dark once more and dance in my chair and then jump
to my feet for the band.
And there is Orwashers, the land of raisin pumpernickel bread and sprouted seven grain…
And Sarabeth’s the storied brunch stomping ground with its preppy and polished crowd and perfect eggs Benedict,
make sure you wear pearls.
And of course my cherished Café Luxembourg, with its feverish and sensual amber glow.
And as the lights come up and night falls the brownstones come alive and the avenues start to hum with the old but new anticipation of evening.
Suddenly I am overcome with excitement about being here now and it’s about what to explore and discover and it’s the new that lures me in, what I have yet to make familiar that has me fascinated.
The Georgian place on Amsterdam Chama Mama where I see a bread with melting cheese and a fried egg waiting to be popped.
And the endless line at Wood Thrush Farms (that I mistakenly and scandalously cut) to buy late summer heirloom tomatoes, under a pergola of leaves that cast dancing shadows in the sun, as people impatiently, but with true grit and stamina none the less, stand and wait for hours for what they want.
And oh my god, Jing Fong has closed in Chinatown but the legacy lives on around the corner from my new home? Where pillowy soup dumplings of impossible deliciousness beckon…
And here is Plantshed where outrageously gorgeous blooms are available by the stem.
Like in the markets in Paris.
Peonies and roses and parrot tulips and calla lilies in big buckets like giant lollipops.
And suddenly I realize that the pride I feel about who I am came from living up here.
That the community shaped how I think, how I behave, how I care about people and humanity.
Zabar’s is no longer the small crowded deli that it was.
It has expanded into an empire.
But when I walk back in after so many years and am assaulted by Vivaldi and the smell of the coffee and the bread,
as I tear off my ticket and queue up for a half a pound of nova, and stare trancelike at the brilliant fish slicers, as they let me into their magical world,
I realize how somehow this place represents what makes the Upper West Side so special.
Laughter, great spontaneous conversation, and people who really just get it.
Every morning at dawn I watch the sunrise from my terrace as the pale pink and dazzling orange light weaves it way through the majestic architecture of the Upper West Side.
What I wouldn’t give for these elegant and fabled structures with their spires and gargoyles and patina rooftops to whisper their tales of a hundred years.
I feel humbled to be in their presence.
I just can’t wait to spend the next 26 years with the love of my life on West End Avenue, surrounded by some of the smartest and funniest people in town.
It’s so good to be home.
So beautiful. Thanks!
I love this. Thank you for sharing and welcome home!
How great to see someone actually appreciating the pleasures of this city, instead of kvetching or predicting doom.
As a newcomer to the UWS (2004) this was fun to read.
Wow, Misha??!!! Now that is quite the memory.
What a beautiful and heartfelt piece. Nothing is more powerful than nostalgia. Thank you.
Really lovely essay. The Upper West Side is my favorite place in the world.
I love this almost as much as I love the Upper West Side
Thanks for the beautiful detailed reflection and homage to the UWS. My husband and I both grew up in the neighborhood and now, many decades later, we too are happy to be back.
It is a marvelous place. Thanks for sharing.
“Home is where I want to be. Pick me up and turn me round”
I WAS BORN AND RAISED ON THE UWS – (GRADUATED FROM THE EIGHTH GRADE AT THE OLD P.S.9) – AND AFTER A FEW YEARS IN CHELSEA (ALWAYS THE WEST SIDE) I RETURNED AND HAVE BEEN HERE FOR THE LAST 40+ YEARS. THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE IT – IT’S IN THE AIR… SO HAPPY TO READ SUCH A WARM ACCOUNT OF MY FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOOD IN THE CITY. WEST END AVE, B’WAY, AND R’SIDE DRIVE – LOVE THESE AVES BEST IN NYC.
“WEST END AVE, B’WAY, AND R’SIDE DRIVE – LOVE THESE AVES BEST IN NYC.”
Me too, for 50 years. 🙂
Wonderful, well written essay!
Oh wow, The Saloon. Now that brings back memories.:)
Had my first date with my college girlfriend there what seems like a million years ago.
There truly is nowhere like the UWS…just something in the air. The energy and the action on the street is really something special.
Even today, for all you constant complainers. Go out and take a walk and soak it all in.:)
Thank you—beautifully written; brought tears to my eyes. I came to Upper West Side in the mid 90’s and I have my own special places—-:Lincoln Center with ballet and opera, especially. In these uncertain times let’s look for the positive.
What a wonderful homage to the UWS, where I have lived for my entire life. I am a tiny bit older than the author of this love letter and remember when the Beacon Theater was a movie theater! It’s where I saw Yellow Submarine. Symphony Space was a movie theater, too; I saw a double feature of “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” and “Yours, Mine and Ours” with my Grandmother.
And Cake Master’s, on Broadway between 85th/86th, and Babka Bakery, on the south east corner of 79th, and Grossinger’s Bakery on Columbus Ave which made the best chocolate cheese cake, and the one on 72nd Street between West End and Broadway which had the best rugalach anywhere–so many bakeries, long vanished. And Levy Brothers on Broadway between 84th and 83rd, where I bought all my Spalding balls and stationery… and Honee there was an accent over the first “e”) shoe store where my mother took me to buy new Keds every summer and new shoes every Autumn. Mr. Rosand gave me the tragic news annually that I could never wear Penny Loafers because my heels were too thin.
My best friend went to Indian Walk. And Williams Barbeque, which was originally on the west side of Broadway, and oh, I could go on and on. Schraffts! The Tip Toe Inn! I love it here, I would never want to live anywhere else on the planet. This is my homeland.
God! I miss Williams’ Chicken every day. Better than my grandmother’s fried chicken. And remember Gitliz delicatessen? Al Buon Gusto on West 72nd Street? And Cafe La Fortuna? And my favorite of all time was La Mirabelle, last seen on West 86th Street just before the pandemic began. I learned early not to fall in love with restaurants because they will break your heart when they leave without warning. I do love the UWS, my home since 1972.
Does anyone remember Creations & Things on 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue?
to Georaven: Gitlitz!!! Of course! Best tongue sandwiches (if you blocked out the fact that it was tongue ;). And Morris Brother’s on Broadway and 84th. And Charivari where I got my first “French Jeans” in the 70’s.And Big Apple supermarket which was less than clean where employees were frequently rude. I remember when Harry’s was called Florsheim, until the early 80’s!
This was amazing and wonderful. So lively and fun to read …may you always be so happy! Just found out my apartment on w72nd used to be a Popular Cabaret right after the prohibition. That was fun I do for me!
A+ my friend. Exquisite essay. Many thanks.
I lived here in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and moved back a year and a half ago. I agree completely — “the whole experience, just divine” — and am so glad to be home.
Although I do envy you your terrace… 🙂
What a beautiful, poetic love letter to a place that I love, too. I came a decade after you left, and although some details have changed (and will go on changing), the magic is the same. And like you, I look forward to being here for the duration.
What a beautifully written love-song to the Upper West Side. The Saloon brings back memories, and if you’d like to see it up close, rent Lovesick, a 1983 movie starring Elizabeth McGovern and Dudley Moore. The restaurant interior is there but without the roller skating waiters.
This is SO incredibly beautiful. Thank you for this love letter, this poem, this gorgeous tribute! As someone who is raising a daughter on the Upper West Side, this absolutely speaks to my heart!
Made me think of my old neighborhood. Thank you for the trip down memory lane…yours and mine.
This was so beautifully written and only enhanced my love of the Upper West Side. I started in this neighborhood when I was 18 and full of dreams. The UWS helped fulfill those dreams. As I am currently the GM of Sarabeth’s, we thank you for your kind words about us and our neighborhood. Your eggs benedict is waiting for you!
Lovely, just absolutely lovely. ( Oh, Ill Cantone! ) Thank you.
Enjoyed reading this. Thanks for your story.
Nice that you are so happy.
What a pleasant memory of times and experiences now past,but still fresh in the memory of the writer, who clearly loves the UWS and is pleased to be back to relive old times, great stuff, maybe more memories to follow?
Incredibly heartfelt, descriptive and beautifully written piece! So much fun to read! I was tearing up! I have always secretly preferred the uws, and now I am afraid I may have to move! This writer really captured life on the uws, so charming!
What a well written and nostalgic reclamation of the delights of the UWS. I shared many of these things and places during the era you documented. What a special place – what a privilege having been there. Thank you!
What an incredible journey back in time, so well written that now I’m hungry! Love this.
OH< you hit on so many memories…….I've lived at Broadway & 75th since 1976 and I will die here – there is no place I rather live. I miss Big Nicks, Vinny's pizza,Teachers, La Fortuna, walking down the street and hearing musicians practicing. I find shopping at "Scrareway" psychic pain but we still have great markets, the flea market, two of the greatest parks which accommodate dogs so well.The Boathouse cafe in CP where one cAn sit by a fireplace, looking at a lake & have a coffee and A nosh for $5 WE ON THE UWS HAVE IT ALL!!!
What a wonderful, gorgeously written piece! Brought me straight back to my time on the UWS and beautifully captures the experience in all its glory. More from this writer please!
Thanks for sharing! We have some overlap in these wonderfully expressed memories! May you enjoy creating many more !