By Harriet Flehinger
In his endearing new book Magnetic City, Justin Davidson, the architecture critic of New York Magazine, takes readers on seven engaging walks through New York City neighborhoods. All the walks are richly observed, but the Upper West Side is particularly dear to Davidson, whose family lives here. He calls the chapter “City of Nostalgia” and writes that his wife, who grew up here, “can still itemize all the businesses along the West Side of Broadway…circa 1975.”
Davidson has a keen sense of history and his walking tour brings to life important characters from the neighborhood’s past. But his appreciation of history also leaves him open to the Upper West Side’s changes. In fact, he notes that some nostalgia can be dangerous.
“Railing against change is often an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia, and we wind up mourning establishments we never patronized or buildings we never really liked,” he writes.
Written more like an epic poem in prose than a standard walking tour guidebook, this book can be equally enjoyed following its directions through the streets or from your favorite comfy chair. Davidson’s research and imagination envisions not just the exteriors of the buildings along the way, but often the emotions and motivations of people who inhabited these residences at various periods in their history.
“The combination of sturdy architecture and traumatized lives gave the Upper West Side a wistful character that has never quite dissipated. More than most parts of the City, it is shadowed by memory.”
Davidson points out that the UWS of the 20th Century was strongly shaped by Jews, many of whom, although well-to-do, were not welcomed to live on the Upper East Side until well after WWII. We also learn the UWS has been home to one of the most diverse populations in Manhattan, including Black people, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Russians, and Ukrainians.
Following the author’s guidance, we begin to see that more has stayed the same than has changed since the UWS’s major development began with the Dakota in 1884. The formidable housing stock, which led the UWS back from decline to prosperity, has not changed as much as we think. The vast majority of Riverside Drive, West End Ave, Columbus Ave (minus the El), Amsterdam Ave, and Central Park West remain virtually unchanged. Only the face of Broadway (notably except Zabar’s block) and the area that became Lincoln Center has been significantly altered in the last 75 years.
Clearly money has washed over the UWS, as over the rest of Manhattan in the past 25 years. However, the author treasures his “slice of Manhattan…where particularly along Columbus Avenue, wealthy co-ops co-exist with middle-income towers, low income housing projects, and rambling rent controlled pre-war pads. The Upper West Side’s identity has shifted this way and that, between co-existing polies: bohemian and stolid, comfortable and marginal, crime-ridden and somehow serene.”
In what could be pulled directly out of the comments section of West Side Rag, I paraphrase from the author’s talk at the Museum of the City of New York in mid-April. ”If you live here long enough you get to complain about the high crime, the filthy streets, drug dealing, the rodent infestation AND THEN you get to complain about the gentrification, the high rents, and the loss of the neighborhood’s “authenticity.” Sound familiar?