West Side stories

Loan sharks and delis, drug dealers and bookies, Puerto Ricans and Poles ... the colourful neighbourhood of novelist Douglas Kennedy's Sixties childhood has all but vanished thanks to gentrification and `zero tolerance'. Here, he looks back and questions the price we pay for our clean streets and safe lives
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Indy Lifestyle Online

uring the summer of 1964, when I was nine years old, my family emigrated. Having spent the first years of my life on 19th Street and Second Avenue (a curiously amorphous area, sandwiched between the swank confines of Gramercy Park and that Lego-like sprawl of tidy mid-income housing called Stuyvesant Town), we headed north. To a region which - in the eyes of most downtowners - seemed foreign, remote, strange.

The Upper West Side.

Back in those days, Manhattan was an intensely regionalised island - a mosaic of self-contained neighbourhoods, each with its own distinctive disposition and ethnic brew. The Lower East Side, for example, was still a sprawling, squalid emigrant quarter, dotted with pickle peddlers and great delis (like Katz's - which had a sign in its window, Send a salami to your son in the Army. The West Village was seriously bohemian - for this was the era when espresso bars and folk music joints predominated the landscape below 8th Street, and when the favoured costume of would- be hipsters (to use the argot of the time) was black berets, Army greatcoats and unfiltered Gitanes. Between Madison and Fifth, this corner of the Upper East Side (the so-called "Silk Stocking istrict") was discreet old money. Further east - on First and Second Avenue in the middle eighties - the scene was reminiscent of some open-air bierstube in Munich, for this was Yorkville: still the haunt of German exiles and a district where eutsch was the principal language of commerce.

Looking back on it now, New York in '64 was, visually speaking, a city still rooted in the preceding decade: the monochromatic American Tabloid world, brilliantly conjured up by films like Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success or the stark, lurid Speed Graphic photos of Weegee. And whenever we were heading west and uptown in a cab, I'd always ask my mother if we could go via Broadway - because, back then, it was an incandescent funfair of tangled neon, gimcrack Girls! Girls! Girls! saloons, brilliantly tawdry billboards (like the infamous Camel cigarette poster: a huge open mouth with billowing smoke), not to mention the gauche Art eco grandeur of such still-extant picture palaces as the Roxy, the Astor, the Paramount.

It is said that, when awake, we remember the past in colour - but, once asleep, we dream in black-and-white. However, whenever my waking mind's eye thinks back to my Manhattan childhood, the images it conjures up are never in Kodachrome; rather, they remain crisp black-and-white snapshots of a now-vanished city. Maybe this is due to the fact that my then-new neighbourhood, the Upper West Side, was achromatic - to the point of being visually devoid of colour.

We moved into an apartment building on West 77th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. The apartment had two bedrooms, two baths, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, and a minuscule maid's room. As there were five of us, a wall was constructed across one-half of the dining room - to be made into a nursery for my one-year-old brother, Roger. My middle brother Bruce and I shared the spare bedroom, and my father would use the dining-room table as a desk whenever he had to bring home work from the office. And though our apartment directly overlooked the faux-Gothic splendours of the American Museum of Natural History, ours was not considered a particularly bon ton corner of Manhattan.

Because, after all, darling, it's merely the West Side.

You see, back in 1964, the West Side was still considered rather declasse. All right, Central Park West (CPW) was pretty high-rent - and there was the occasional famous face (like Lauren Bacall or Jason Robards or Robert Ryan) living in one of the grand old apartment buildings fronting the park (the grandest of which, The akota, was allegedly given that name because, when it was built shortly after the Civil War, its geographic position on 72nd Street and CPW was considered - in the sort of Manhattan beau monde world which Edith Wharton would eventually chronicle - so obscure, so distant, so socially outre that it was like "living in the akotas"). Even in '64, toney East Siders still looked upon anything west of CPW or east of Riverside rive as vaguely plebeian, and lacking in visual grace. Or, to put it another way, the Upper East Side between Fifth and Park was always considered a district. Whereas my corner of town was known as a neighbourhood. What's more, it was a mixed neighbourhood, with all the crazy strata of the New York melting pot represented within its confines.

Consider the socio-economic make-up of my street in '64. At the south- eastern end of West 77th Street was the New York Historical Society - a grand old mansion-style museum, chronicling the city's heritage. Next to this gracious edifice were two expensive apartment buildings (Numbers six and 16), both co-operative (ie, the residents owned their apartments, and managed the building themselves), and both brimming with folk who wouldn't have been out-of-place across town in the Silk Stocking istrict.

The next three apartment buildings (Numbers 22, 33, and 40) were more of a middle-/upper-middle-class potpourri. Yes, there were successful corporate types like my ad, and the usual bevy of doctors and lawyers and advertising guys ... but there were also schoolteachers, and badly paid book editors, and would-be novelists, and the occasional struggling actor or jazz musician, and plenty of widowed little old ladies, seeing out the last act of their life in a small one-bedroom apartment flat facing a back alleyway.

Now, directly after this trio of buildings came one of the most famous of all West Side residences: Number 44 - an eccentric Gothic pile, designed by the famed Ragtime-era architect, Stanford White, and featuring just two vast cavernous apartments per floor. On 77th Street, Number 44 was considered the best address on the block ... even though it rubbed shoulders with, without question, the worst address on the block: Number 50, better known as the Park Plaza Hotel.

The Park Plaza was a dump. At one time (during the Second World War) it had been a reasonable mid-price hostelry, of the type favoured by ageing showgirls and mid-ranking bookies who went by the name of Benny. But since then it had become a residential flophouse - a so-called "welfare hotel" where the New York social services dumped the usual cavalcade of junkies, wife-beaters, low-level psychotics, and just plain sad indigent folk with few residential options in the relentless Social arwinistic world of Manhattan. In short, the Park Plaza was, shall we say, colourful, and lively (especially when gunshots occasionally rang out from its upper floors), and inclusive (to the point where, as a schoolboy, I started to exchange morning greetings with two exceedingly tall, exceedingly blonde black transvestites - who were always hanging out on the front steps of the hotel).

It was also a little dangerous. The cops were inevitably breaking up some sort of drug deal within its grubby corridors. The morgue guys did a reasonably steady pick-up business whenever one of its residents overdosed. And every so often, one of the Park Plaza's habitues would venture into an adjoining apartment building, with disastrous results - such as the case of the little old lady in my building who was raped and strangled by one of the hotel's standout lunatics, having gained access to her apartment via the fire-escape and an open window.

Of course, the Park Plaza's prevailing ambience of down-at-heel decay fitted in perfectly with Columbus Avenue - our main shopping precinct, and a ragtag collection of mom-and-pop stores, grimy tenement-style buildings and questionable bars like Tap-A-Keg - where one infamous night during my childhood, a local loan shark caught five slugs in the head, careened out through the door, and died right in front of a Puerto Rican pizza parlour on the western corner of 76th Street (I know this because I accompanied several friends the next day to the place where he fell, and checked out the dried bloodstains).

Indeed, back then, Columbus Avenue wasn't a place along which you wanted to walk at night. It's not that the potential for grievous bodily harm was huge (though that infamous convention centre for junkies - Needle Park - was just two blocks west on Broadway in the early 70s). Rather, Columbus Avenue simply exuded menace because after dark, it was such a murky, crummy area. By day, it wasn't exactly a looker either. But, as I came to discover, it did have a splendidly eccentric soul, and it was without question a real neighbourhood. Check that: my neighbourhood.

What makes a neighbourhood? It's simple, really: a neighbourhood is a place where all the shopkeepers call you by your first name, and where they report you to your ad for buying cigarettes at the age of 14. My neighbourhood stretched along Columbus from 72nd to 77th Street. Its highlights included the Optimo Cigar Shop, presided over by Morris - a large, totally bald Ukrainian in his late fifties who always had a cheap (as in 15 cents) White Owl cigar clamped between his blackened teeth. Morris was the snitch who informed my father that I tried to buy a pack of Lucky Strikes, and who once threw me out of his shop for reading the National Enquirer (back in its "warf Throws Girl Off Cliff Because She Refuses to ance With Him" heyday).

"Youz wanna read such dreck," he said in his best Vilnius accent, "youz pay me money for such dreck."

Then there was the eternally dyspeptic pharmacist who looked like a bespectacled game-show host, and who, in the approving presence of my grandmother, wrapped up a carton of cigarettes for me in bright shiny reindeer-festooned paper: my Christmas present to my ad in '65 (and a poignant reminder of that pre-health-fascist era when the corner chemist actually sold smokes).

Teddy, the shoemaker, inhabited a tiny little hole of a shop near the south-eastern corner of 77th Street. He was an Eastern European refugee from Hitler's anti-Semitic wrath, and a first-rate cobbler whose fingernails were permanently black with polish. A street or two down the road were two Polish emigres who ran the local soda fountain (they made the best egg-cream on the Upper West Side), and who both had numbers tattooed on their forearms from their stint in Auschwitz.

And then there was Mrs Grossinger - baker extraordinaire, who operated from a cramped, excessively noisy premises between 75th and 76th Streets. Her seeded rye bread was so good that folk from the East Side would actually make a pilgrimage to her shop, in order to pick up a couple of loaves. And even now, I can remember the fragrant tang of her onion rolls - not to mention the astringent Yiddish-inflected sound of her voice:

"Young Kennedy, vill you pleeze tell your Mama I vont have the cake till later."

Of course, one of the ongoing truisms of life is that you never recognise what you have until it's gone. Just as another great truism of life is that you know you are middle-aged when you begin to wax nostalgically about your childhood. But though I might now look back fondly on the Old Neighbourhood, when I was growing up it always struck me as shabby and less-than-easy on the eye. And - to be honest with you - I always envied my toney East Side friends who lived in areas which did not contain welfare hotels, loan-shark shootings, and the occasional sighting of local Puerto Rican toughs, always wearing the sort of pointy alligator shoes which we (the local white kids) used to call PFCs: Puerto Rican Fence Climbers.

But even as we were settling in to our new neighbourhood, the tectonic plates of change were beginning to slowly shift under the topography of the Upper West Side. Because, in 1964, a few acres of land (in a region called Hell's Kitchen) were about to be transformed into a performing arts complex known as Lincoln Center. Within two decades, this civic grand projet would be regarded as the catalyst which started (for better or worse) the wholesale gentrification of my neighbourhood.

What happened was this: as Lincoln Center housed such august cultural institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet, the area immediately around the complex became a happy hunting ground for ambitious restaurateurs. When all available space was seized around the sidestreets of the Center, these new entrepreneurs began to head into unexplored territory: Columbus Avenue. By the mid-Seventies, you could find a wide variety of cheap, cheerful eateries between 65th and 72nd Streets along Columbus. By the end of that decade, assorted culinary outposts had made their way north as far as 81st Street.

Then came the Roaring Eighties - that decade of Reaganomics and power-dressing and far too many Oliver Stone movies. Salaries in the financial and corporate sectors - skyrocketed. There was a consumer boom. And New York - a decrepit bankrupt in the sartorially challenged 1970s - reinvented itself as the city of the moment; the master of the universe (hats off to Tom Wolfe), embracing an ethos which could best be described as: the importance of being fabulous.

There was a lot of money. There was a huge demand for residential space on that skinny little island called Manhattan. And the Upper West Side suddenly became (alongside SoHo) the new place to be.

Within a few years, property prices went ga-ga. Consider: a renovated one-bedroom apartment on a marginal sidestreet in our neighbourhood (say 83rd Street between Amsterdam and Broadway) would have rented for $350 a month in 1976. By 1986, it was $1,250 a month. And nowadays, it would probably garner close to $2,000.

It wasn't just residential costs that were skyrocketing. Along Columbus Avenue, rents doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled. And, one by one, all the old denizens of the neighbourhood were forced to vacate their premises. Teddy the shoemaker went first - to be replaced by a series of restaurants (currently, an ultra-trendy brasserie called Isabella's). Then the pharmacist and Morris the newsagent left the scene - they are now yet another outpost of The Gap. The two Polish soda jerks vanished one summer - a Sunglass Hut currently occupies their one-time premises.

Even Mrs Grossinger - with her much-loved rye bread and her citywide clientele - couldn't keep up with the stratospheric rent increases, and eventually abandoned the avenue at the end of the Eighties. And, wouldn't you know it, some smart property developer bought up the Park Plaza Hotel, gutted it from top-to-bottom (no doubt, finding a few rotting corpses stuffed within its walls) and transformed it into a spiffy block of luxury apartments.

And once the Park Plaza and Grossingers vanished from the topography, I knew that the neighbourhood of my childhood was officially dead.

Though the '87 Wall Street crash may have temporarily depressed real estate prices, the gentrification of the Upper West Side continued apace. Whereas in the past, the neighbourhood's cityscape was defined by brownstone town houses and pre-war apartment blocks, now towering "luxury condominiums" (think allas or Houston) began to dot the area. Old regional landmarks (like the New Yorker movie house - the doyen of Manhattan repertory cinemas) were torn down to make way for these new garish residences.

Meanwhile, middle-income folk - teachers, musicians, booksellers, public radio producers, film archivists, secretaries, para-legals - were being forced further and further north, thanks to escalating costs. The Upper West Side - the happy hunting ground of that stock-in-trade Woody Allen species, the New York Intellectual - had now become White Collar Corporate.

"I tell you," my father said recently, "once the Upper West Side was 70 per cent to 80 per cent German and Jewish. Now it's either blacks or Hispanics or Yuppies. And mainly Yuppies."

Yes, there are still a few isolated pockets of West Side life (generally below 96th Street) where there are remnants of the old socio-economic stew. Stroll north of 86th Street along Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, and you will see plenty of low-income public housing projects, rubbing shoulders with new luxury developments. Only nowadays - and this is a positive development - the chances of getting your cranium fractured (for daring to walk through such an area) have lessened considerably.

"You know, the crime on the Upper West Side just isn't what it used to be," one senior officer of the NYP and a family friend told me during a recent transatlantic phone call. "Take 100th Street between Manhattan and Amsterdam, for example. Or the north side of the block, you've got ouglas Houses, this big low-income Housing Authority complex. On the south side, there's Park West Village, where a co-op probably starts at $300,000. Now it's ironic to have these two buildings opposite each other - but physically today, they don't look much different. Because over at the ouglas Houses there's better fencing, better lighting, better landscaping - because we've made Quality of Life issues a top priority in Manhattan North."

Loiter with intent in Manhattan these days, and you will hear much talk about Quality of Life. Because, along with Zero Tolerance, it is a mainstay of the strict no-nonsense, now wash your hands school of urban governance, as practised by the city's fearsomely effective mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

And - as a frequent transatlantic commuter - I must say that many of Giuliani's quality of life changes have reaped enormous social benefits. Though some of my more jaundiced Manhattan friends accuse him of being pathologically anal, I am certainly not offended by the fact that, litter-wise, Manhattan is now far tidier than most of London; that (thanks to strict policing) the boom box has become an endangered species; that the charming smell of urine (so redolent of the West End these days) no longer assaults my nostrils at every Broadway streetcorner; and that I no longer feel as if I have to crawl into a bin liner (and pack a gun) before sampling the delights of the subway.

Yes, Manhattan is now safer and cleaner than ever. And yes, I can now walk down Columbus Avenue at three in the morning, and not fear being assaulted by some junked-out schizoid, armed with a Saturday Night Special. Because, of course, Columbus Avenue (south of 86th Street) is now Manhattan's equivalent of the King's Road: a shiny, elegant, upscale testament to designer consumerism, replete with the usual stylish outposts of The Gap, French Connection, Banana Republic, the Sunglass Hut ... not to mention that ubiquitous dispenser of designer caffeine - Starbucks.

So my old neighbourhood is now a place where you can find 20 different variations on a latte theme, but where you can no longer get your shoes repaired. Sushi, rocket with shaved parmesan, and Ben and Jerry's ice cream are the staple foodstuffs, but you have to walk three blocks west to get a prescription filled. Monoculture - in the shape of the big brand name emporiums - has triumphed. And there are times when Columbus Avenue simply strikes me as a suburban open-air mall.

Shopping, of course, is the great cultural activity of our age - and in the affluent West, our cities have begun to mirror our consumerist preoccupations. More tellingly, in our so-called global village, national (and even regional) differences have started to blur - to the point where the shopping precincts of every American city are Identikit facsimiles of each other (just as all English high streets are a uniform series at brand names).

In fact, everywhere you look in Manhattan these days, shopping is the civic modus vivendi. SoHo - which, for one brief moment in the early Seventies, was a proper low-rent artists' quarter - has now become an extended series of designer boutiques (in exactly the same way that Paris's St Germain district has lost its life of the mind cachet in favour of Emporio Armani). Times Square - the planet's most formidable red light district - has been sanitised into the sort of entertainment district that is perfectly suited to the televisual needs of nice circumferentially challenged midwesterners, decked out in non- natural-fabrics (OK, I am a metropolitan snob).

And meanwhile, onald Trump is about to open a massive new high-income housing development called Riverside South on 67th Street - further evidence (as if evidence were needed) that the Upper West Side's distinctive character is all-but-vanished.

But the streets are safe, and the restaurants are booming, and you're never more than five blocks away from a pair of Gap khakis.

So who needs a neighbourhood?

The writer's new novel, `The Job', is published by Little Brown at pounds 12.99.