By Jim Mackin
New Yorkers have a love affair with buildings. The quintessential New York experience is walking down a street and being captivated by the façade on an old building. Whether a monumental government building, tenement, or brownstone, our eyes are drawn to the details and our imaginations take us to another time. The question passes our mind—who lived there? The answer is hard to find and we are left wishing someone could tell us.
You would think there would be hundreds and hundreds of plaques honoring the notable people who lived in New York City, but there are less than 200. The vast majority of the plaques are in Manhattan and most are for men, few for women and people of color. Humphrey Bogart, John Dewey, Cecil B. DeMille, and former New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchell, all have plaques on the Upper West Side. Maya Angelou, Woody Guthrie, Barack Obama, and Billie Holliday do not. Their homes and the time they lived in the neighborhood are unrecognized.
Part of the reason for the lack of plaques is that there is no government agency or commission responsible for determining who should be acknowledged and where plaques should be placed, and, not surprisingly, there are no funds available for their creation and installation. That leaves the responsibility with building owners, historians, and dedicated followers to decide. All too often, it is the cost of a plaque that stops the process dead in its tracks. No matter that high-quality plaques can be created for a few hundred dollars, there are few willing to take on this expense.
New Yorkers and visitors are missing out on so much. They can see the concrete and steel of the buildings of the city but the human element is lost. It’s time to “connect” those buildings with the remarkable people who lived in them; it’s time to place a plaque in their honor.
Historian Jim Mackin has researched the Bloomingdale and Morningside Heights neighborhoods, which run from the West 90s to the West 120s. In his book, Notable New Yorkers of Manhattan’s Upper West Side: Bloomingdale – Morningside Heights, he takes the reader on a block-by-block, building-by-building tour, providing fascinating details about 591 of the area’s past residents. The book provides bios of these notables—the famous and infamous, the unacknowledged and well-known—many of whom Jim has identified as “plaque-worthy.”