Friday, June 25, 2010

Walking in the '70s

What was the Upper West Side like during the 1970s?

Ask people who lived here at the time and you're likely to hear conflicting opinions.

"There was room for everyone on the Upper West Side back then. It was an exciting , diverse place to live - part of a city with an edge."
"It was a dangerous, decaying place. Like the rest of New York, the Upper West Side was in crisis."
So much has been written about New York as it was in the '70s that I'm beginning to question my own childhood memories of that time. Was it as pleasant and colorful as I remember or as miserable and dangerous as it has been portrayed in books and movies set during that notorious decade?
I'll describe the walk I took each day to school on the Upper West Side in the '70s and you be the judge.

When I was growing up in New York on the Upper West Side, danger was ever-present but it seemed more like background noise than the focus of our lives. Danger was something we lived with and worked around in order to continue doing what mattered. We were not at home cringing in fear. Well, not all of the time.
The pre-war building where we lived was filled with actors, musicians, ballet dancers, opera singers, playwrights, social workers, activists, teachers, professors, and more. Its hallways echoed at all hours with the sounds that escaped from apartments: singers vocalizing, composers at their pianos and actors running through their lines. There were 12 apartments on each floor with two located nearest to the stairs. Musicians always lived in those stairwell apartments, for the extra soundproofing I assume. Occasionally I would walk down ten flights of stairs just to enjoy listening to the way the music would change from floor to floor, from jazz to classical and back again.

My favorite neighbor was a German author and illustrator, Hilde Hoffman. She kept the door to her sunny apartment open in the afternoons so that her cats could go out to roam the halls and I could come in to watch her work. The occasional muggings and robberies in our building didn't prevent her from enjoying her open door at least a few hours each day. That ended when our doorman, a retired police officer who brought his family to every one of my birthday parties, was shot to death in our lobby during a robbery. After that she stopped keeping her door open and soon moved away. I remember a sense of sorrow marked by fear lasting a long time after the loss of those two friends.

Walks to school along Broadway offered a bit of everything - the good the bad and the crazy.

My mom and I would leave our building, turn the corner and immediately be met by the sight of the transvestitie prostitutes on the corner. Their comments about everyone who walked by them would often make us laugh. We would pass the Chinese laundry, (still there to this day) and I would breathe in the clean laundry scent until we reached the Greek diner, with its eggs and coffee aromas. When we passed the open door of the P&G Bar on the corner I would hold my breath against the smell of stale beer while I squinted into the dark to see who would want to sit in such a smelly place. (Apparently lots of people since P&G re-located only recently.)
After a stop at the donut shop on West 73rd Street across from "Needle Park," we would continue along Broadway, my mom's hand clutching mine a little harder each time we passed what were known back then as "bums" - drunks, drug addicts, weirdoes. One of them scared me the most. He was an odd man who stood on Broadway for years playing a snare drum, his hair and eyebrows painted jet black and his face colored red with strange, oily makeup. Mostly, the people on the street were just ordinary.

On the corner of West 72nd Street, where Gray's Papaya now stands, there used to be a record shop. I remember seeing the album covers in the windows change each week, depending on who was popular. Time seemed to pass measured by the images in those windows - Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Elton John, Doobie Brothers, Rolling Stones, Barry White, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, Donna Summers. My closest childhood friend reminded me recently that for many years there was a woman who stood near that store singing opera. The woman was set on fire one day and died of her injuries.

At the corner of West 71st Street there was a candy store that seemed old to me even so many years ago. The owner seemed to despise children. He watched me with suspicion each I walked in to buy a Chunky bar or anything else, probably because anytime he saw children wearing the school uniform I wore he assumed his store was about to be shoplifted. He was usually right. Groups of children enjoyed visiting his store before and after school only to run out laughing, clutching handfuls of stolen candy bars. After awhile the store owner began keeping a long pole behind the counter that he used to scare off little thieves.

A few doors down from the candy store we would walk by another bar but I remember little about it other than that familiar stale smell and the fact that a Mark Spitz poster was a permanent fixture just inside the door.

On the corner of West 70th Street and Broadway I'd leave my mom and turn the corner to approach my school. Along the way I'd slow down if the warehouse doors to the ABC Television production facility were open. It was fascinating to watch the sets for ABC soap operas being built and rolled in and out of that facility each day.

Finally, I'd arrive in front of Blessed Sacrament School and join the swell of children playing and shrieking on the street and along the sidewalk in front of it. We were a mass of green plaid and flannel. After a few minutes the school principal would come outside to ring the morning bell.
Every one of us at Blessed Sacrament had walked to school. All of us had witnessed scenes along the way that told us what was best and worst about our colorful, sometimes shockingly dangerous neighborhood. But at school we were just children. The only thing that filled us with dread there was the sound of the school bell's first chime signaling the end of recess. We would fall into silence and line up quickly ready to enter the school and its zone That's a whole other blog post.
Now that you've visited the Upper West Side of the past, how would you answer the question, "what was it like?" I suppose it would depend on where you focused your attention - on the frightening and dangerous or on what was beautiful and unique. Just remember that everything that made it an unbearable place to live was overshadowed by countless other details that made it an impossible place to leave. Ask me what it was like and I'll tell you simply - it was home.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back to Nostalgia

What do you do when you've read an article that has shaken you to your core, you've responded with an impassioned Letter to the Editor then come back to your senses? You write a blog rebuttal to your own comments. Crazy, right? But that's what I've done.

The idea for a series re: growing up in New York began after I read two essays about life in 70s New York then re-read my letter to Commentary magazine. In it I quote Myron Magnet about today's New York and Upper West Side:

"Today's peace and prosperity mustn't be taken for granted...know what a heroic effort of philanthropy and policing it took to reclaim what less than two decades ago was a dusty, sterile, graffitti-marred wasteland."

I end the letter claiming that after being reminded of all things negative about my old neighborhood and all things wonderful about it's renewal I'm willing to join John Podhoretz, author of one of the essays, in saying "to hell with nostalgia."

Well, the sentimental Upper West Sider is back. Yes, the old days here were difficult and dangerous but there is much to celebrate about those days that the essays overlooked. The blog post below is the first step in a recovery from unhealthy, unnecessary anti-nostalgia.

Read. Enjoy. Comment. Revel in the new Upper West Side but don't let anyone tell you it wasn't an amzing place even back in the "bad old days."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Upper West Side: More to the Story?

What was it like to grow up in New York?

That's been a difficult question to answer at times but having just read two essays in Commentary and City Journal about life in New York in the 70s and 80s, I'm beginning to understand why: I grew up in more than one version of the same city.

In the first essay, Life in New York, Then and Now, John Podhoretz describes living on Manhattan's Upper West Side during one of "the worst periods in New York's history." That period happens to coincide with the time when both he and I were children in the area. The stories he shares in his essay about those days intersect my own childhood memories. He describes after-school muggings, "airmail" (scraps of garbage thrown from windows) and the "state of constant menace" that was part of daily existence for most of us who lived through that dark period. If you read the piece he wrote (Commentary, May 2010) you'll notice that he finds few redeeming qualities to celebrate about the Upper West Side of that era. The statistics he lists certainly support his view: at the peak of the madness there were over 5,000 felonies reported in one precinct in our neighborhood in a month.

Myron Magnet also writes about a New York I once new. If you loved New York back in the "bad old days" it's actually painful to read what he has to say. In his City Journal essay he portrays the New York of my childhood as a "nightmare peopled by freaks" while drawing readers' attention back to Mr. Sammler's City, a controversial novel written by Saul Bellows and published in 1970. The novel captured life in New York as the city was unraveling. The first sentences in Mr. Magnet's essay brought me back to that time in an instant:

"Fear was a New Yorker's constant companion in the 1970s and 80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of a medieval ironmongery. Nearing our building entrances we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging proceedure."

If you have fond memories of the New York of the past, reading the essays I'm mentioning here might cause you to take offense or make you a little defensive about the city's past. It wasn't all that bad, was it? But as living witnesses to New York's stunning rescue from ruin, both Mr. Podhoretz and Mr. Magnet are telling us the facts as they were not as we wish they had been. Their stories are impossible to deny. Both of them are speaking to today's New Yorker. They resent you if you wish you had lived here when "New York had an edge." You merit a verbal spanking if you romanticize their city's dark past even as you take for granted the privilege of living here today in safety. Mr. Podhoretz warns us all against nostalgia, which can "be a treacherous mistress...(as it) glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable." Mr. Magnet directs our attention to the New York of the 70s as evidence that "it is possible to kill a city."

Hard truths delivered with force and accuracy by lifelong Upper West Siders who publish leading literary journals. So why am I left feeling as if there is more to tell - as if these essays have given readers a complete picture of the Upper West Side's past but not the whole story? I believe that it's because they both overlook something important: the fact that beauty co-existed alongside mayhem during those difficult times in a place Mr. Podhoretz describes as "a small city in the midst of a great city."

It's clear that two versions of the Upper West Side existed during its darkest period - the one on the surface that generated bleak statistics and anxiety-producing news coverage,and another just below the radar. The next time someone asks me what it was like to grow up in New York I may just ask a question in return: "Which one?"

In my next blog entry I'll take you on a-day-in-the-life visit to the Upper West Side of those dangerous times that will hopefully shed a bit of light on the sunnier side of the street. Still, you may want to hide your jewelry, hang onto your purse and step lively - it'll be the 70s in New York afterall.