The History of New York City's Upper West Side

By Sarah Waxman

Upper West Side Geography

Home to such venerable New York landmarks as Lincoln Center, Columbia University, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Dakota Apartments, and Zabar's food emporium, the Upper West Side stretches from 59th Street to 125th Street, including Morningside Heights. It is bounded by Central Park on the east and the Hudson River on the west.

Dutch Settlement and Expansion

The Upper West Side was settled by Dutch immigrants in the early and mid-seventeenth century, though not without resistance from the Munsee Indians living on the north end of the island of Manhattan. Warfare with and raids by the Munsees temporarily ended the northward expansion of the Dutch settlers in the 1650s, leaving them with a stretch of land north of the city known as Bloemendal.

Mainly farms and rolling countryside, Bloomingdale was a large producer of tobacco at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1703, Bloomingdale Road--later to become the Boulevard, and even later to become Broadway--was built to handle the traffic required by the increasing commerce. The road originated at what is now 23rd Street and stretched to 114th Street. By the late eighteenth century, many wealthy merchants had country estates in the relative isolation and wilderness of Bloomingdale, and fine homes and farms dotted the area. In fall of 1776, the war of Independence made its mark on this suburb in the Battle of Harlem Heights, a battle notable only for its strategic unimportance.

The Taming of the Wild North

The West End of the early nineteenth century was comprised of small, distinct villages, which existed independently of each other. The wealthy (though rapidly becoming less "country") estates continued to multiply, elegant mansions competing with the rocky landscape. Despite the gridding and numbering of the streets in 1811, landholdings and natural obstructions kept this innovation largely theoretical until the end of the century. The 1853 creation and construction of Central Park displaced residents of the site, changing the economic face of the West End. As squatters and lower-income tenants were forced to abandon the park, many simply moved west, building small shacks and lean-tos. Every year the growing population brought the suburb closer to the big city and by the end of the Civil War, the area once named Bloemendal, or 'valley of flowers' was assimilated into New York City.

Despite its increasingly metropolitan feel, the West End remained largely underdeveloped throughout the nineteenth century. The projects that were undertaken--the improvement and widening of Bloomingdale Road and its rebirth as the Boulevard, the laying of new sewage systems, and the extension of the elevated railroad up the West Side by way of Ninth Avenue--appealed to forward-looking land buyers and developers, who nonetheless remained cautious.

Ever Upward: The Apartment Building Boom

Apartment buildings were, in many ways, the key to the successful development or "gentrification" of the area. Throughout the late nineteenth century, high rises shot up on the West End, as real estate developers invested in such grand projects as the Dakota and the San Remo. The avenues began to acquire their distinct characters: Columbus offered commerce, Amsterdam sported low rent housing and small shops, Riverside Drive (opened in 1880) an alternately elegant and seedy residential park-fronted way, and West End a quiet residential street.

The Boulevard hosted an odd collection of hotels and vacant lots; many of these belonged to developers who continued to await an economic boom that would raise the value of their property and merit construction on a grand scale. Apartment housing pushed out the home-owner oriented row housing which had dominated the building trends of the West End for half a century, and began to form the landscape of the Upper West Side which exists today.

Another addition to the modern New York cityscape was the subway system--the first in the country--which opened in 1904. It revolutionized public transportation and shoved the rickety el into obscurity: the el was nonetheless left standing until 1940. Improved access enhanced the appeal of the Upper West Side, and as the nineteenth century came to a close apartment buildings proliferated, citifying the once rural West End.

Wising Up: The Intellectual Upper West Side

In the 1890s Columbia University relocated from the East Side to Morningside Heights, taking over the grounds of the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum. Part of a rising intellectual/artistic trend on the Upper West Side, Columbia contributed to the already active cultural life. The artists and academics shared the neighborhood with the equally lively mob, which played and fought its flashy way through the early decades of the twentieth century. The roaring twenties found Riverside and West End Avenue still wealthy, but Broadway and areas east seedier, with lower middle class families living in neglected old buildings. Development and construction ceased from the early thirties through the early eighties, and the Upper West Side's popularity and social attractiveness waned, making it an undesirable address.

The Upper West Side has often been perceived as a heavily Jewish neighborhood, but despite this reputation the influx of southern blacks, Russians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and Ukranians in the forties and fifties, and Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans in the fifties and sixties has kept the area diverse and demographically unpredictable. Partially because of this diversity, the Upper West Side has retained a liberal constituency and a bohemian attitude. Major urban renewal, starting in the mid-fifties under Robert Moses, was the first step in the revival of the Upper West Side; in particular, furious debate centered around the slum clearance undertaken to make way for Lincoln Center in 1959. Despite its unpopularity throughout the seventies, the Upper West Side maintained a sense of community, attracting artists, writers, and young families with its relatively low rents and neighborhood feel. The wealth of the eighties renewed the area, raising rents and drawing yuppies and their accompanying incomes; this influx prompted renovation of the grand old buildings of the earlier era.

The Upper West Side Today

Still seen as more intellectual and less wealthy than its blue-blood East Side brother, the Upper West Side is, however, once again experiencing an innundation of young affluent thirtysomethings, as the available apartments in New York disappear faster than they appear on the market. Gentrification has wiped out many of the small businesses that once made the upper West Side distinctive, but holdouts remain, and you can still find everything from good bagel shops to great bookstores.


Books Set on the Upper West Side