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5 Things We Learned About the UWS From An Architecture Critic's New Book

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Random House

UPPER WEST SIDE — "Politically engaged, culturally aware, and slightly sanctimonious." 

That's how New York magazine architectural critic and Upper West Sider Justin Davidson describes the ethos of his neighborhood in his new book, "Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York."

More like an "ambling" companion, Davidson's guide leads readers on a tour of the Upper West Side that begins at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park and ends at Lincoln Center.

Explicit walking directions line the margins, but Davidson said he wrote "Magnetic City" with its anecdotes flowing seamlessly from one to the next to reward even those "just reading it like any other book."

"What I love about the Upper West Side is the variety from block to block," said the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who moved into the neighborhood with his family in 1994. (He continues to live there with his wife, son and two cats.)

"You can feel the texture of the neighborhood changing, whether you’re walking crosstown or uptown. There’s the incredible, sometimes real bougie-ness of Broadway, but then just off it you have Pomander Walk at 95th Street or these rows of really similar brownstones. Then you’ve also got these incredibly ornate and varied motley townhouses.”

The other quality that sets the Upper West Side apart? Its nostalgia.

"More than most parts of the city, it is shadowed by memory," Davidson writes in his book. "Sift through old photographs, or through the memories of longtime residents, and you can make out the layered ghosts on every block."

We spoke to Davidson about his book and the revelations that come to light when you pull back the Upper West Side's many layers. Here's what we learned:

► The first mansions to pop up on Riverside Drive in the 19th century looked over "garbage-strewn ravines and industrial wastelands."

In 1867, property owners finally managed to secure the cliffs beneath their homes for Riverside Park, which would be designed by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Davidson writes in "Magnetic City." Beyond that still remained railroad tracks, moorings, garbage dumps and the "sludge-hued Hudson." 

► Upper West Siders — "passionate activists, idealistic eccentrics, earnest participants in the city's cultural life," in Davidson's words — haven't changed all that much in the past century. 

Just look at the family that moved into what is now a yeshiva on the southeast corner of Riverside Drive and West 89th Street in 1905. Julia Barnett Rice and her husband Isaac were white-collar professionals — she had an M.D. degree, he was a practicing lawyer — with a shared passion for music and an unconventional parenting style, according to Davidson's research.

A true activist, Julia Rice didn't quietly seethe about the persistent sound of tugboat and barge horns on the Hudson River, but instead launched a ferocious campaign against noise pollution. A man of idiosyncratic interests, her husband invested in railroads, established a political journal and developed a chess gambit he named after himself.

"As I was learning about them, they just felt very recognizable as Upper West Siders," Davidson told us. "If the timing were a little different, they were people I might have known.”

► In the early 20th century, the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway between West 73rd and 74th streets offered all kinds of luxury amenities — including a rooftop farm with geese.

ansonia hotel

The Ansonia Hotel (Credit: Library of Congress)

There was electric lighting, air conditioning, a restaurant seating 500 guests, a lobby fountain and exposed elevators, according to Davidson's account. Bachelors who moved into the building, which opened in 1904, could bring their own furniture or choose some from the hotel's catalog. Then the Great Depression hit, and everything went downhill.

► Photographer Diane Arbus and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim grew up in the same Central Park West apartment building at the same time.

Arbus and Sondheim's parents were part of the wave of affluent Jewish families that migrated from Lower East Side tenements to the "Promised Land of Central Park West" in the 1920s and '30s, Davidson writes. 

They settled in the San Remo at 145 Central Park West, a luxury building designed by architect Emery Roth and constructed in 1929. Arbus's parents, who owned the upscale Fifth Avenue fur store Russeks, lived in a 14-room apartment looking out onto the park. Sondheim's parents occupied one with fewer rooms and a less plush view, moving out when their marriage abruptly ended in 1940.

"We think of [Arbus and Sondheim] as being associated with very different periods," Davidson said, but "there are all ways that the stories of the Upper West Side really intertwine and overlap and double back.”

► Before the construction of Lincoln Center in the 1960s, the neighborhood known as San Juan Hill was famed for street fighting, race riots and a rich cultural life.

When progressive reformers came to inspect housing in the area west of Amsterdam Avenue between West 59th and 65th streets, they found thousands of low-income families cramped into rundown, vermin-ridden brick tenements, Davidson writes. But San Juan Hill was also home to bohemians and distinguished artists, such as jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, who grew up at 234 W. 63rd St. and continued to return to his old home after each tour abroad.

The idea of building a new, monumental enclave for the city's major performing-arts institutions in the midst of the West Side slum can be traced back to philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III but was spearheaded by master planner Robert Moses. 

The move proved "controversial, because it was replacing sub-par housing — not with par modern sanitary housing — with artistic institutions that I care about deeply, but probably meant very little to the people whose lives were being disrupted to make room for it," Davidson told us.

"For me what’s kind of poetic about that story is how complicated it is to try to score change," he added. "Clearly it was bad for some people and good for others."