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Walking Tour Journeys into Upper West Side's Hidden Past

By Leslie Albrecht | July 26, 2010 6:31am | Updated on July 26, 2010 7:59am

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — A century or so ago on the Upper West Side, the main drag was Bloomingdale Road, not Broadway, an insane asylum stood where Columbia University is today, and an elevated train ran along Ninth Avenue, now known as Columbus Avenue.

History buffs got a glimpse of that hidden past on Sunday during a walking tour led by historian Gilbert Tauber.

"I like to see the reactions of the people in finding out stuff they never suspected about where they live," said Tauber, who leads the free tours on behalf of the Columbus Amsterdam Business Improvement District and the Park West Village History Group about six times a year. "There's so much that's under your nose that you don't realize until it's pointed out to you."

The two-hour tour began at West 96th Street and Central Park West — where a 16-story combination church and apartment building was built in the 1920s —and ended at the tour's newest landmark: 142 W. 109th St., where Barack Obama lived during his student days at Columbia.

The tour unveils plenty of little-known historical tidbits. For example, Tauber revealed the fact that Columbia's campus at 116th and Broadway was once the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

In later years nearby landowners tried to rebrand the neighborhood, known as Bloomingdale, as "West End," because they didn't want to be associated with the asylum, Tauber said.

"It was a little like owning developable land across the street from Bellevue Hospital," Tauber said. "It wasn't a good marketing point."

Decades ago, the area around the Columbus Square Whole Foods at 97th and Columbus was a food supplier of a different sort — rural farmland where New York's upper crust built country estates.

At that time, the tallest structures in the neighborhood weren't skyscrapers, but the 50-foot high Croton Aqueduct, which delivered the city's drinking water from Westchester County.

Another vanished feature of the 19th century landscape is the elevated train that once ferried passengers along Ninth Avenue, now known as Columbus Avenue.

At a nickel a ride, the train was considered "cool new technology" when it debuted in 1879, Tauber said.

The public eagerly followed its progress in media coverage, much in the same way that people read news about Apple's latest iPhones today, Tauber said. The train's 100-foot high elevated tracks were dismantled in 1940.

Tour participant Malin Schuster of TriBeCa said he enjoyed the tour because it gave participants a sense of "where things have come from."

Schuster said he used to live in Detroit, where the city's urban core has deteriorated over the years. The tour showed Schuster that in some cities older neighborhoods are rejuvenated again and again, he said.

"In New York it's terrific because historical neighborhoods get second and third lives," Schuster said.