UPPER WEST SIDE — One of the catchphrases real estate brokers use to entice people to move to the neighborhood is "family friendly" — but what actually makes the neighborhood that way, and how does it fall short?
Upper West Side moms and business owners Natalya Murakhver and Victoria Feltman have dug into those questions and shared the ways their experience in the neighborhood has changed through the years.
"I used to really resent people plowing me down on the sidewalk with their strollers, and now I'm one of those people," Murakhver said.
She and Feltman also reflected on the tipping point for families in terms of staying in the city versus leaving for the suburbs, and offered ways to "shrink the neighborhood to a manageable size," including tips for new parents.
The moms — who also own healthy eating consulting company Apple to Zucchini, geared towards busy urban families — delved into the conundrum of getting a nutritious dinner on the table after a long day of work.
Emily: Natalya, how long have you lived here, and tell us about your family structure, and your life here on the Upper West Side.
Natalya: It's been, what, 18 years? It was different before we had kids, but the neighborhood still has the same spirit. The parks really make a big difference. I found solace in them, even before I had kids, and really felt like I couldn't leave the neighborhood. Somebody once said to me, "You're a lifer," and I think I really am.
Emily: You have two kids now.
Natalya: One is 5 and a half. One is 21 months, two girls.
Emily: I wanted to ask you about your experiences in the neighborhood without kids versus with kids. How did you see it differently?
Natalya: I used to really resent people plowing me down on the sidewalk with their strollers, and now I'm one of those people. Fairway has definitely become a place I will only, only ever go to without a stroller, or without a kid actually, because it's just too intense and I can't handle the stress.
Emily: Just the tight corners and everything.
Natalya: The corners are the best part of it. It's the people, and the old ladies with their walkers. I can't compete with them, and yes, it's very, very tight in there. Whole Foods on the other hand is definitely very parent-friendly, and ...
Emily: The one on 96th Street?
Natalya: Yes. Thank you for clarifying. Not the one at Columbus Circle at all. The thing is, when I lived here in the '90s and well into the 2000s, I was living in the 70s, and that was more of ... It's still, to a certain extent is, more of a going out neighborhood. It's closer to Midtown. It attracts more tourists. It's less family-focused and family-friendly. After we had our first child, we were living up on 100th and Broadway, and I think that the comparison between ... There's definitely good reason for comparison between the two neighborhoods. Even though they're both Upper West Side, they're both very different Upper West Sides, and the 90s and the 100s on the Upper West Side, I feel, especially with the addition of Whole Foods six years ago, five or six years ago, really is very family-friendly.
It's almost like a little mall, and there's a park. There are so many playgrounds. I think the playground density up there is much higher than it is down in the 70s. We just have one or two choose from. The 70s were, back then and still now I think, better for younger people, and I think as you get older, I definitely miss the high 90s.
Emily: It's sort of like a family enclave feeling?
Natalya: I think so. I think it's more local. To me it feels like the streets get wider as you go higher up. The big buildings that have gone up there in the last decades, the ones that have the Whole Foods, and Michael's, and all of those, they're just family-friends in a way, because they're the bigger stores, they're big box stores, they have elevators, and they're just more amenable. They even have playgrounds behind them, so it just feels ... There are more classes up there. There is Swim Gym. There is Discovery programs. It just feels like in the 70s, you're just closer to the cultural mecca, but not so much targeted to kids and families.
Emily: Vicky, what about you? How did you end up on the Upper West Side?
Vicky: My husband and I were living in the West Village, and when I became pregnant with our first child, we started looking Downtown, but also up here, and I think we just fell in love with the neighborhood and the green, Natalya mentioned before. We ended up on 86th, between West End and Riverside. Riverside Park really became our backyard. We have been here now since the spring of 2011, so right before I had my first, and we now have a four and a half-year-old, a two-year-old, and one on the way.
Vicky: Thank you.
Emily: What is it about Riverside Park?
Vicky: There are a number of fantastic playgrounds, but there's also the promenade. It feels a little bit more neighborhood-y than Central Park, where you get a lot of tourists.
Natalya: I think it's patches of the park.
Natalya: I think certainly where we are in the park feels that way, and the lower park playgrounds. There's a new playground by us called the Adventure Playground. It's pretty big, and it's new, and it feels fairly sparsely populated at this point, but if you go down to I think the Heckscher ... Is that how you pronounce it? The Heckscher Playground, that is all populated by tourists for the most part, and that makes sense because the rink is there, and the carousel is there, and the backdrop of the city. You feel like you're almost in Midtown in Central Park as you go higher up, and that's probably one of the things I miss about being closer to the Rudin Playground, or even the Mariners Playground. It just feels like it's just locals who cross the street to go there, and the park itself feels more sparse and less populated by visitors, who of course I don't oppose, because they support our economy, but we live so close to 72nd Street and the whole, whatever the bus-
Emily: The Dakota, Strawberry Fields.
Natalya: Yeah, so it's ... Exiting the park at 72nd Street definitely is more of a pinch point.
Emily: Does that description of the 70s versus the 80s, 90s, and the 100s ring true to you as further north, more family-friendly?
Vicky: I have no point of comparison really, because we've always lived in the 80s, but I think the 80s are pretty family-friendly. It was funny, I was walking with a friend this morning, and she lives on 96th and Central Park West, and we were down by Barnes and Noble, and she said, "I love your neighborhood." It was so funny, because you don't think of the Upper West Side as being all these different neighborhoods, but I guess there are pockets, and I do think the 80s is pretty family-friendly. There's the Children's Museum, and there's Kidville, and New York Kids Club, so a lot of kid-focused businesses, for sure.
Natalya: I just breathe a deep sigh of relief after I go past 79th Street into the 80s. It feels like, "Okay, things are calming down a little bit up here." Of course when the schools let out, it's a different situation. The streets are just flooded with kids, but the 80s do feel a little bit more local. That said, I always prefer Columbus to Amsterdam or Broadway, because again, Columbus feels like a more local street, versus walking down Broadway or Amsterdam, it just feels a little bit more busy, more trucks, more noise, more people, so the quieter route is Columbus or Central Park West.
Vicky: I also think we are on West End, and West End is a very residential avenue. It kind of creates this barrier, and I think just ... The Upper West Side is one of the few places where you can be so close to Broadway, and the subway, and major points of commerce, and yet still be in a very residential neighborhood.
Emily: People always refer to the Upper West Side as family-friendly. Does that ring true to you compared to other neighborhood? Do you think it really beats out other Manhattan neighborhoods?
Natalya: I think that the city is changing, so more and more families are choosing to stay Greenwich Village, and Chelsea, and other areas downtown, but I do think that ... I think having kids, it feels very family-friendly and kid-friendly.
Natalya: Local. People tend to stay for a long time, and you see the same faces on the streets, which makes it comfortable. There are a lot of kids here, a lot of strollers, which again, I really had trouble with when I was a single person, and now I really, really have grown to appreciate. Yeah. I think just the exposure to both parks, the river, and all the activities that you have in the summertime on the pier, which was a really great addition, I don't know, 15 years ago.
Emily: Are you talking about Pier I?
Natalya: Yeah. The cafes.
Emily: In Riverside Park.
Natalya: It just feels like the city has made a great effort to invest in making the Upper West Side as family-friendly as possible. There's the Children's Zoo that's easily accessible, and the carousel, and all the parks. There's the-
Vicky: Natural History Museum.
Natalya: The Natural History Museum, the free tennis lessons in the 90s, also in the Central Park, all the Riverside Park camps. It's pretty easy being here, and you never feel like you're traveling too far to get your kids places, as well as just being off the red line, the one, two, three. Anything on that line, I'm always like, I'm willing to travel on that line. If you want me to get off that line, that's a problem.
Emily: The trains come frequently, and it's pretty reliable?
Natalya: Pretty reliable.
Vicky: I think also just more people are staying in the city, right? More families are staying here. The schools have gotten better up here. There's definitely, I think even probably in the past 15 years, the neighborhood has changed.
Emily: There's always this debate: Are people leaving for the suburbs or are they staying? People make arguments for both. In your experience, what have you seen with families?
Vicky: I have a number of friends who have moved to the suburbs. I think three kids can sometimes be the tipping point. I do think that most of my friends have decided to stay and raise children in the city.
Natalya: I don't know that I have any friends who have left, and so many of my friends now are friends that I made over the first year or two of my older daughter's life, and they're all here, so ...
Emily: Do you think the decision-making point is whether you get into the school that you want to or not, for kindergarten?
Vicky: I think for some people it is. I think for some people, it comes down to kindergarten, or that's also just ... You don't want to uproot your kids as they get older, so it's a good time to move, but I do think that for some families, even they have their second, and they've kind of always seen themselves moving out of the city.
Natalya: I've seen a lot of people talk about moving out after they have two children of different sexes if they're living in a smaller apartment, because over and over again ... I have two daughters, so I don't really know what this is like, but they talk about how as the children get older, it would be more and more difficult for them to share a room if they were a boy and a girl. Coming from Ukraine, I think plenty of kids grew up there sharing less than a room, but I guess that makes sense.
Vicky: A lot of people want to stay in the city, so you're willing to make compromises, so either your kids are sharing a room, or you're living in a smaller space than you would like, you're forfeiting outdoor space. It's all, I think, worth it in the end.
Emily: We talked about some of the amazing resources on the Upper West Side, but what are the parts of living in the neighborhood, and in the city generally, that are hard, that are just tough?
Natalya: Poop everywhere, and pee everywhere.
Vicky: The dog poop.
Natalya: All kinds. It's really, on our block, it's not just dog poop. We have a couple of churches, so it's quite ... It's interesting walking down the street at times. The pigeons. The noise pollution. There's so much noise pollution. As I said, walking down or up Amsterdam Avenue, I can't even hear my daughter speaking to me. I feel like it becomes an extra strain, because she's trying to tell me something after school, and I honestly cannot hear her unless she's yelling at me. Sensory overload at times, especially around the holidays, when everyone's bustling around in their own worlds, but at the same time we also have these fabulous lulls, when people go away.
The summertime in the city, which at times can be unpleasant because it's hot, but is really quite beautiful, and we do have the parks, and there are all these wonderful free pools, like Lasker. There's a pool up on 100th and Amsterdam in the Frederick Douglass Park that we love. I really appreciate the different resources and the rhythms, but it can be very challenging.
Emily: Yeah. What do you think Vicky?
Vicky: I would think, just from an economic standpoint, it's a very expensive place to live, and certainly space is at a premium. You're exposing your children to a lot of wonderful things, and different cultures, and different types of people, but at the same time, there's this great economic disparity that I think you have to address at some point with your children.
Natalya: My five-year-old and I were walking to the dentist yesterday around 60th Street, where this beautiful luxury new building has gone up, and it looked quite fancy. I said, "Look, there's new apartments going up, and they're finally open, and look, there's a gym on the main floor," and my daughter said, "Oh, great, then they can give all the homeless people a place to live." I didn't want to start talking about the Poor Door, or any kind of ... I said, "I don't actually think that these buildings are targeting those people." "Well, why not? Those people need a place to live." Unfortunately, the Upper West Side's less and less that.
Emily: It sounds like city kids have to grow up faster.
Natalya: They're definitely exposed. They're not growing up in a bubble.
Emily: They're not sheltered.
Natalya: No, and that's fine. That gives you teaching opportunities, and conversations, and if they feel that there are inequities, then they can fix them if they get older.
Emily: For new parents, or people who are thinking about starting families and moving to the Upper West Side, what tips do you have? What do you wish that you had known?
Vicky: Something that a friend of mine said to me when I had my first child was, "Don't sign up for any classes, but do trials of everything, and figure out what you like, because it's really more for you than it is for the child at that point," and I think that was good advice, because there's so many different options on the Upper West Side that you really can test everything out before committing. The other thing is, there's some great moms' groups and first-time moms' groups on the Upper West Side. I found that to be really helpful.
Natalya: That's how Vicky and I met, through a meet-up group called First-Time Upper West Side Moms, which has like 5,000 members now. That's an incredible resource because it kind of combines so many different components. You can just observe, and read your daily digest, and see what other parents are dealing with, and just absorb that by osmosis, but you could also ask questions, usually with little judgment, unless you're talking about vaccinations and a couple of other things that are really hot button topics, that usually get shot down pretty quickly. You can meet other people. There are all these small and large get-togethers. There are free class trials. You can ask about classes before signing up. You can find out about the schools.
Vicky: Childcare providers, and daycare, and resources.
Natalya: It really shrinks the neighborhood to a really manageable size. At the beginning, what you need is socialization. The baby really doesn't need any extra socialization, so you have to figure out who you feel comfortable with, and usually those will be the people you'll spend the most time with anyway.
Emily: I was going to ask you how parents find community on the Upper West Side. Outside of school and preschool communities, how do you make friends? How do you find your community?
Natalya: I used to take my older daughter to Elliott's Gymnastics, which was great because Elliott was always available to give advice, and steer, and was very opinionated about child rearing, which actually was educating the parents, so that was helpful. Also meeting people who were there, with their six-month-olds, just hanging out with them and seeing if you clicked, and if your kids hung out nicely together, and then continuing that, but other classes as well, and just trying new things, and talking to people in the park, or bumping strollers in the grocery store.
Vicky: I think the nice thing about having a child is that you have this common bond with people, and you meet other moms who are in the same boat at the, like Natalya said, at the grocery store, or the playground, and you instantly form this connection. It's a walking city, so you might go get a cup of coffee after the playground or, because people often live in small spaces, you're out and about more. Meeting up at different museums, or in the park, I think there's a lot of opportunity to socialize.
Natalya: It is a small village, and you do see the same faces over and over again. Each 10 to 15 block radius kind of has its own folks, that go to the same places over and over again, so you see them at the same playgrounds, at the same grocery store, and after a while often times you'll say hello, and your kids become familiar with each other, and yes, playgrounds are amazing social spaces.
Emily: You guys met, and then you started a company together, Apple to Zucchini, back in 2012?
Natalya: Yes. Exactly. I have a Master's in Food Studies and Vicky has a Master's in Nutrition, and we met on the Upper West Side Moms group because we were talking about milk, and dairy products, and hormones, and antibiotics, and what was good, and what wasn't good, and which coffee chains were serving better quality milk or worse quality milk. It became a big conversation about what to feed our kids. We felt that there was so misinformation, and so many questions, that we decided to start running seminars to explain it, and talk about our experiences feeding our children, and what we learned in school, and through reading, and continuing to research the subject. We decided to start this company.
We do individual consultations. We're still doing seminars for mothers' groups. We do wellness makeovers for families that feel like, "Well, we really want to cook at home, but we're not quite sure how to stock our pantry, and how to do things efficiently. Maybe there's not a culture of cooking, or I don't know which ingredient is better. Should I be getting free-range chicken or organic chicken, or organic milk, or what's ultra-pasteurized?" For those families, we can come into their home and look at what they're living situation is, and also try to understand what their goals are, and really create a custom program or approach for them.
Vicky: I would say how we differentiate ourselves is that we focus on in-person workshops, and seminars, consultations.
Natalya: We really like to meet the people we're working with. We've done a bunch of webinars, and we find those challenging and quite honestly not as much fun. We say moms' groups; it always ends up being moms, but we really welcome dads, and we think dads and the entire family should be involved in eating decisions. It just happens to be often moms are the ones who are doing the shopping, and doing the cooking, and doing the meal planning. Our goal and our wish is that everyone participate, including the kids, so we can even do kids cooking workshop.
Vicky: I think also just helping families simplify meal time, and not making three separate meals for different kids, and for themselves, and encouraging families really to ...
Natalya: To make meal times pleasurable, and commensal, it does require a time and investment, and we are also practical, and understand that people can't come home at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., and everybody can't eat together, but we try to at least encourage families to opt for one or two weekend meals together, where they can re-learn the basics of eating together.
Vicky: Also, just helping them come up with tools and strategies that work for their family and their family's needs.
Natalya: What are some things, looking back over the past three years, that have been hard about owning your own business?
Vicky: I think just finding time. I think having both of us have very young children, and don't have tons of childcare, and that's been a choice, but at the same time finding the time ... I think every mom, whether she works part-time or full-time, really struggles with that life-work balance. It's not just the workshops, but it's the work that you have to do leading up to-
Natalya: The prep.
Vicky: The prep work.
Natalya: Honestly, just marketing and promoting ourselves. We hired an intern about a year into our business, and our intern went on to write a book. She's single, and she doesn't have kids, and she had the time, and the desire, and the ambition. We have that desire and ambition, but we just don't have the time because it's always a trade-off. You leave your child, and your child is crying because even though she likes the babysitter, she'd rather be with Mom, and to be honest, I'd rather have her be with me as well.
Vicky: Keeping in mind that the kids are not going to be this young forever, and that it does go by fast, and we will have time to pursue this later, I think helps, but it can be challenging because there are a lot of different things we want to be doing.
Natalya: There's certain decisions that we make. We could be ordering dinner in every night, and serving frozen Trader Joe's food which, nothing's wrong with that, but then we'd have a lot more time.
Vicky: A question we frequently get is, "What if I walk in the door at 5:00 p.m. with my kids, and it's really hard to get dinner on the table?" Planning out a week's worth of meals in advance and doing a lot ... I like to go to the grocery store, but doing as much shopping online as possible through Fresh Direct or another online service, and then supplementing the trips to Whole Foods, or to local markets.
Natalya: Every choice has consequences, and while we want to grow the business, and want to do more consultations with other families, and talk to more parents about how to feed their children, we also realize that we have to stay home and feed our own kids. Both of our husbands work pretty long hours, and while they're both probably quite facile in the kitchen, and enjoy making certain meals, time-wise it's just not possible. In order to make home-cooked meals, it does take time.
Emily: I see a lot of delivery bikes, and there are a lot of takeout-oriented places. Do you think the Upper West Side is still pretty eat out-focused, or are more people trying to cook and eat at home?
Vicky: I think that one of the challenges that a lot of New York parents have when they have children is that they are accustomed to ordering in, and that they haven't done a lot of shopping because, although it is an expensive city, it's almost more affordable if there are only two of you to order in than it is to cook everything from scratch. When you have children, there is this interest in preparing meals, and really feeding your kids health, home-cooked foods. I think there's a little bit of both. I think a lot of families are still not eating as a family, so maybe they're preparing "kid foods" for the kids, and then their couple is eating out dinner.
Emily: They're ordering out.
Natalya: We've heard that a lot, actually. "I steamed some peas, and corn, and chicken for my two-year-old, and then my husband comes in and we order Chinese." It is really tough. The time constraints, and just work hours and expectations. People also, when they cook, they get really offended when their kids throw the food down and say they don't want to eat it, and they're all invested, and it can become really stressful. It's easier, almost at times, to just give them chicken nuggets and French fries, but yeah, it seems like a lot of families are interested in cooking, especially after the kids come around. There's also the limitation of small kitchen. I'm sure you've seen the seamless web ads, which drive me nuts. I can't stand those ads.
Emily: They're all anti-cooking.
Natalya: They're all anti-cooking, and I hope there's going to be a backlash against that at some point.
Emily: I'm seeing a lot of salad places, juice bars, that kind of thing.
Natalya: God. Amsterdam Avenue.
Emily: Do you think there's more interest in health? What is behind that?
Vicky: I do. Some of these things I think are trends. There were tons of frozen yogurt places on Amsterdam Avenue, and I think 90 percent of them have been shuttered at this point, and certainly I think the juice bar thing is a little bit of a fad. I think some of it will stick around, but I don't know that they will all be able to stay in business. I don't think the salad thing is necessarily a bad thing. I think if anything that gets people eating fresh, wholesome ingredients is probably a net positive.
Natalya: What is it about Amsterdam Avenue and fads? I don't get it.
Emily: What are your hopes and fears for the neighborhood, looking forward?
Natalya: All the empty store fronts really need to get filled. Talking about takeout and delivery food services, if you go downtown, you have so much more choice about healthy, delicious, smaller production places. They just can't seem to survive on the Upper West Side. It's just so sad, because within the last couple of years, several of my favorite affordable restaurants that we really loved closed down. Café con Leche, and then right before that was Harry's Burritos, which we had been going to for over a decade, and just now Ocean Grill. It's just all of the really great places that really define the neighborhood are disappearing, and I don't really believe that Dwayne Reid and banks are going to take over their spaces.
If you look in Columbus Avenue, even the fancy clothing shops can't seem to stay open, so there's got to be a bubble burst somewhere. I am okay with Columbus Avenue being the Madison Avenue of the Upper West Side, but where are all the smaller businesses that really feed the neighborhood going? I know Amsterdam Avenue has a few new restaurants that have just opened that you covered, so hopefully those will fill in some gaps, but there's ... Every day I walk by, and there's several other places that have shut down or are leaving, so it just seems like there's a mass exodus, and I don't know when the landlords are going to get the notice.
Vicky: Not just restaurants, but a lot of small businesses. It's very sad to see them go, and then also to walk by ... I was on Columbus in the 80s earlier today, and there's just blocks of empty storefronts. It's very depressing.
Natalya: When you talk to restaurant owners who have had their restaurants open for many years ... I spoke to the owner of High Life. I love that place; I think it's one of the most kid-friendly places. They make the best fries, and I've been going there forever, and I talked to the guy who owns it, and I said, "We worry sometimes when we walk past here that one day you guys just won't be here." I feel like I'm a PTSD victim just walking past some of these restaurants, because I never know what's going to be gone the next day. Ocean Grill blew us away, by the way. It was just devastating, and I'll never get over it, but I asked him, and I said, "When is your lease up?" He said, "In seven years. And by the way," he's like, "Our rent has gone up so much, and I believe that when the lease is up in seven years, there's no way we're gonna be able to afford it."
Emily: It sounds like people should vote with their feet.
Emily: I really enjoyed talking to you guys.
Natalya: We enjoyed talking to you too.
Emily: People want to check out your site. It's-
Emily: Great. Thank you.
Natalya: Thank you.
Vicky: Thank you.