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.


  1. Hi,

    Look forward to your reminisces. I read the Podhoretz piece, not the other one. I caught the tail end of that era, moving here for the first time in the late 80's and caught the end of that era (and the height of the crack epidemic). Me thinks Podhoretz protests too much, and chose very much one side of the city.

    Right now I live in Bed-Stuy - a couple of months ago a lady was killed by a stray bullet, a rapist was on the loose - yet the day to day, especially on my street, is convivial, neighborly, especially on my street. Which does on emphasize and why?

    My one impression of that older New York was that it was probably a great place to be young, a little harder to be in once you got older. When I first moved here, pretty much everyone I met who was from here wanted to leave. But hey, it WAS exciting. The energy was totally unique, enervating, open. And it was accessible. The biggest flow in Podhoretz's essay was that the UWS was no less expensive then than it is now. That's ridiculous. Even fifteen years ago, when I worked selling books in front of Columbia, there was a diversity of people you'd never seen now.

    Anyway, that's my two cents . . .


  2. No human story can ever be entirely without a redeeming side, I think. The grim stories that these two authors tell of the city are not told to say that the city was without redeeming qualities, but to warn against the attitudes that let the city they recount come into existance. They serve to remind those of us with the tendency to romanticize chaos that the world we live in is not the only one that can exist, and that much of the security and freedom we enjoy in our lives is not inevitable, and can easily be lost.

    However, I think your observation is correct, there is indeed more to tell. But there is always more to tell. Even in the depths of depravity, there will exist good in human society. Maybe that is why God created man, and saw that it was very good. Not because humans are inherently good people, or always animated by good intentions, but because even when the world is crumbling around us, we somehow still manage to go on living, and some of us can still see beauty in the midst of chaos.

    That is a story that needs to be told too. We need to remember, even when things seem black, that the darkness is never all there is.

    I look forward to reading about the New York you knew. I've read about the darkness, now I'll be able to see the sun.

  3. I grew up in the south Bronx. Last month I took my son and nephew, who grew up in Portland, OR and now is a med student in Philadelphia, to a Yankees game (my first and last at the new stadium at $60 a pop). After the game we drove by the building where his dad and I grew up. He took a picture, but wouldn't get out of the car to do it.


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