Saturday, September 24, 2011
A Gathering at West End Avenue
What were you doing last Thursday night?
If you were on the Upper West Side you might have been at one of seven Steely Dan performances at the Beacon Theater. You might have been lining the sidewalk outside of Baseball Center on West 74th Street waiting to see a reggeton artist at batting practice. You might have been at the gala night for the New York City Ballet, witnessing the premiere of Sir Paul McCartney's Ocean’s Kingdom. You may have been standing along the red carpet shouting devotions to Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Naomi Watts and Jon Bon Jovi. Or maybe you ignored the stream of rich and famous entering the David H. Koch Theater that night in favor of giving the roar and spray of Lincoln Center’s towering water fountain your full attention, with a bit of time set aside for gelato tasting.
There were many ways to enjoy that cool autumn night in New York last week but on West End Avenue a group of 35 Upper West Siders chose to spend that time focused on a mission: the preservation of one of Manhattan’s grandest boulevard’s and most beloved neighborhoods.
Neighbors, community leaders and a state representative gathered barefoot at sunset at an Upper West Side penthouse for the annual meeting of the West End Preservation Society. There was much to celebrate.
A year of triumphs against aggressive development and careless building practices in the area had generated almost unanimous support from local residents, property owners, government officials and key decision makers at the Landmark Preservation Commission for the group’s ultimate goal – the expansion of the West End Historic District. The general spirit in the room seemed to be one of determination to keep momentum building toward the effort and quiet certitude that victory is near, perhaps only 2 years away.
A group that came together to save two 1894 townhouses on West End Avenue only two years ago (they were eventually demolished) is now in position to save 2,300 buildings and preserve 37 blocks along the same avenue.
A run-down of neighborhood issues that WEPS is helping to resolve revealed a genuine affection for the neighborhood…and an uncanny attention to detail that ought to put West End landlords and developers on alert: these Upper West Siders notice everything (chipped urns, altered sconces, changed lightbulbs – they see it all), they are protective over every inch of the built environment that surrounds them and they know their rights.
There was gleeful talk over one developer’s decision to “cut and run” from a property at West 86th Street once organized pressures against the project became “too much.” There was concerned discussion over “shenanigans” at 732-734 West End Avenue where area residents endure a “noise hell” even as questionable construction work makes vapor intrusion and water contamination a looming possibility for a school next door to the site. The project was coined, “The building full of surprises that no longer surprises,” and strategies were quickly established to resolve each issue.
When New York State Senator Tom Duane arrived he was greeted by applause that seemed as much like an outburst of affection as a gesture of appreciation for his 13 years of service representing New Yorkers. As an ally of those who stand against over-development and as a proponent of careful urban planning, he jumped right into the dialogue then offered to brainstorm effective fundraising ideas for WEPS. It became clear that fundraising is a major area of concern for the group. Despite the fact that West End Avenue is home to its fair share of rich and famous residents, all of whom stand to benefit directly from WEPS efforts, few if any have made the sort of contributions that would give WEPS the firepower it needs to continue protecting the interests of area residents.
When the meeting ended right on schedule, 90-minutes after it began, an animated roar filled the room as attendees broke into clusters to socialize and strategize further. About seventy shoes lined the hallway where attendees continued conversations, slipping into sturdy walking shoes, boots and Birkenstocks. The elevator opened into the apartment and soon a group of neighbors were on the way back down to street level – but not before a stop at another penthouse, this one spilling over with fashionable, tipsy revelers who stared into the elevator with silly smiles and just a hint of condescension.
Did they know there had been a meeting just upstairs organized to protect the building they enjoyed so much?
Could they have any idea that decisions were being made on their behalf to protect their entire neighborhood into the next century? The elevator closed and continued its way down.
Back on West End Avenue, the buildings that had been the subject of so much conversation that evening stood silent and dignified as they have done since 1910 and 1920. Outlined by the evening sky, they seemed aware of their place in history and of their value to architecture. It was impossible at that moment to doubt they would continue standing for decades more to come.