I've decided to blame this whole thing on the goat. When I came to the Upper West Side in the 1950s, she had been standing for decades in the window of Friedgen's Pharmacy, at Amsterdam Avenue and West 118th Street. Stuffed. If you asked what a stuffed nanny goat was doing in a drugstore window (everyone did, once) you learned that she had been a historic figure -- the last goat in the neighborhood, lived into the 1920s or '30s. And if you were properly impressed (most people were), Mr. Friedgen would top that by pointing to a framed photo behind the counter. It showed a wooded setting and two young men with shotguns, grinning and leaning against a sign that read NO HUNTING. That, he said, was Morningside Heights a half-century before.
The idea that my intensely urban neighborhood had sprung up out of farmland, and within living memory at that, was intriguing, and like most intriguing thoughts it was forgotten. Twenty-some years later, though, that photo and that goat were in the back of my mind when I set out to learn a little more about my neighborhood, present and past.
I was living then near Riverside Drive on West 89th street (some of us don't cover a lot of distance). All I wanted then was a half-page of local history for a block association newsletter, and just as an aside I would like to suggest that bookson New York history should carry a warning label: CAUTION, ADDICTIVE MATERIAL. A few weekends' research at the Historical Society and I was hooked -- and I'd fallen in love all over again with Manhattan's Upper West Side, the quirky, sordid, hustling, grandiose, hopelessly overarticulate hodgepodge of a neighborhood bounded by Morningside, Riverside, and Central Parks and stretching from Columbus Circle to roughly today's West 125th Street. The first result of that addiction was a series of articles in the late, lamented Columbus Ave magazine, where Sue Berkman and Mary Frances Shaugnessy, the editor and publisher, very kindly allowed their local historian free rein. The second is this book.
Like most kids exposed to an American education, I had had the general idea that history began in 1776. Rooting around among old books and manuscripts, I found myself among some neighbors who had been carrying on remarkably like today's New Yorkers a good century before the Revolution. I also came the somewhat startled realization that my little corner of New York had a population well over a quarter of a million -- roughly equal to that of Sacramento or Akron, or of Hartford and New Haven combined -- i.e., it was a fair-sized city in its own right, and one that had never really been written about, unless you counted a couple of parish histories that came out in 1907 and 1910.
I became fascinated with how the onnetime riverbank suburb got swallowed up by the burgeoning metropolis -- and even more by the fact that it apparently stuck, undigested, in the city's craw. Like an unsubdued colony, the Upper West Side often seems, as an earlier writer, Lloyd Morris, put it, like a city unto itself, with its own distinctive social tone.
With a few obvious differences, a biography of the Upper West Side could be the story of almost any American town. One difference, of course, is that any American town would not have boasted -- or endured -- the throng that has made the Upper West Side one of New York's most vital neighborhoods.
A collage of Upper West Side faces would include Lillian Russell and Anna Held; William Tecumseh Sherman and Florenz Ziegfeld; Charles Evans Hughes and Bruno Richard Hauptmann; Humphrey Bogart and Richard Rodgers; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser; Caruso and Toscanini; Walter Winchell and his pal Frank Costello; Gertrude Stein and Mae West; Leonard Bernstein and John Lennon; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Polly Adler. And luckily for the storyteller, most of them were up to something worth mentioning when they were here.
You'll also meet a number of their relatively unknown neighbors, some of them sufficiently celebrated or notorious in their own day but never, until now, trapped between the covers of a book.
When the townsfolk of New Amsterdam first turned their attention to the undeveloped West Side, they called it Blomendaal, "flowering valley," after a town in Holland's tulip region. Gentrification, as we now call it, started in the 1760s, when the wealthiest Colonial merchants and power brokers chose this area, with its grand river views, for their lavish country seats. In the nineteenth century the name "Bloomingdale" was familiar to all New Yorkers. The Bloomingdale Road (later renamed The Boulevard or Western Boulevard) was the main western route out of town and a favorite with coaching and sleighing parties; we call it Broadway. There were three different Bloomingdale Squares on the map at different times, and the Bloomingdale Lunitic Asylum -- where Columbia University is now -- was a prime tourist attraction.
For most of this century the name "Upper West Side" has been familiar and thoroughly unfashionable; the area's most recent gentrification -- a verb coined by an Upper West Side journalist, by the way -- was preceded by a long half-century when it became home to an unsurpassed mix of classes, races, and ways of life, which was stimulating or alarming, depending on your point of view.
My archetypal East Side - West Side story (old style) is about the Fifth Avenue dowager who admits that yes, she actually had been to the West Side once, "but only to board the Ile de France for Cherbourg, my dear."
The people in this book would mostly have been outside the lady's circle of acquaintance: promoters, eccentrics, writers, socialists, scientists, madams, artists, mobsters, a counterfeiter and a poisoner or two, lots of actors, musicians and theater people. But then at times it also was a place of high social aspirations, a district of fine homes and noble public boulevards. At certain carefully selected epochs in the neighborhood's checkered past, I would wager, the Cherbourg-bound lady would have felt right at home.
But then, so would the goat.