It is true…I can’t quite explain why, it just did. I always viewed the Upper West Side (UWS) as a bit suburban (which is kinda how I view the Upper East Side today), elitist, and remote. Before moving to New York, I knew nothing about the UWS, other than knowing that Jerry Seinfeld made it the backdrop of his show. For those that don’t quite know the boundries, the UWS of Manhattan is situated between the Hudson River and Central Park from 59th Street to 110th Street.
Upon moving to New York City in the summer of 2007, I stayed with my BFF who had a tiny but efficient studio on Middagh Street, one of the more enviable blocks in Brooklyn Heights. The space was unique in that the bathroom measured 27 inches by 69 inches and contained a toilet, sink, and stand up shower all within less than 13 square feet of space. While I fell in love with Brooklyn Heights and its charms, I knew I was not really a Brooklyn Heights kind of guy.
So, what kind of guy am I? That is what I had to figure out. First and foremost, I am an urbanist. Somebody who thrives amid chaos. I love the constant goings on about me, busy streets and sidewalks, the ability to walk to almost anything I need from my front door. Not having to rely on a car to take me places. This is at the core, who I am. I grew up in a typical suburban tract house in Central California, and while my parents strove to provide a good home and a safe place for me with good schools (which they did), I was always drawn to the city. My favorite TV show as a kid was Barney Miller. I loved it not because it was set in Greenwich Village (I didn’t yet know what Greenwich Village was), but because of the wacky characters who wound up in the precinct. I loved the never ending cavalcade of oddballs and nut jobs the show brought into my living room over the years. I knew those were my people
When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, I made a beeline for my local bastion of wackos, Downtown Sacramento. Well…. let’s just say that I was looking for my people. I say that because as somebody who has always lived outside the lines of normalcy, I wanted to be as far away from suburban homogeneity as possible. From that point forward, the city center was always my desire. Aside from the people, I was also drawn to the fabric of the inner city. I love the juxtaposition of the old interwoven with the new. That is what gives a city a sense of place. Something I never really felt outside of the city center.
As I made my way through adult life, living in Seattle, then Portland (OR), then back to Seattle, and then Chicago, I nearly always managed to find a place within a mile or so from city center. I always wanted the ability to walk out my door and into the heart of the city in which I lived. The only exception to this was the first four years in Chicago, of which boredom of living far uptown drove me to buy a loft in the heart of the Loop.
As I see it, basically anything that is not within a mile of the epicenter of any city feels like the suburbs to me. That was why I was afraid of the UWS. I need to constant activity of the city outside to feel at home.
Which brings me back to when I arrived in New York in 2007. I knew I was not a Brooklyn Heights kind of guy, and that living urban was an absolute given, but what kind of guy am I otherwise? This is where the other realities begin to settle in, and ultimately I had to learn what kind of guy I am not.
When I landed my first apartment on Horatio Street in the West Village, I knew that living there was kind of a big deal. Especially after telling people where I lived and seeing their reactions. So I thought I was a West Village kind of person. It was in the heart of the city, and I could walk anywhere from my front door, but as I lived there for a few years, I began to realize that I am not a West Village kind of guy. Perhaps I would have been 15-20 years ago, but the West Village is not what it once was, and I would never really be a part of it. It has become a play land for extremely wealthy people who are far more focused on out doing each other than building a community.
When I began to search for a home to buy, I thought about different neighborhoods and how I fit in. I love the East Village, I love the character, I love that it still has grit. But no matter how much I want to be an East Village type of guy, I’m just not, and I would never feel at home there. Also, the lack of decent subway service would always annoy the hell out of me.
Then I thought about other neighborhoods. The entire east side of Manhattan of Manhattan in general was out. Not because there is anything wrong with it, it’s just not me. It’s too residential, it’s too clean, and truthfully (to me at least), it just isn’t as interesting as the West Side of Manhattan. Given that the majority of my life occurs west of Fifth Avenue, it didn’t make sense. Then I thought about Chelsea. I love Chelsea, it may have less charm than the West Village, but it is interesting, and it has character. But, just like the West Village, it too has gotten to be very expensive. Then there is the odd plot of land on the west side between 26th street and 40th Street filled with train tracks, very heavy traffic (Penn Station and Lincoln Tunnel) and lots of somewhat desolate zones. Again, just not what I wanted to live in.
That basically left Hell’s Kitchen. Further north than I would have preferred (as up to that point 90% of my life occurred below 23rd street), but it had character, a bit of grit, and proximity to walk almost anywhere. Up to this time, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Hell’s Kitchen, but after walking around the neighborhood, I sensed that I could be happy up there. Ninth Avenue is one of the best restaurant row’s in Manhattan (for those not looking to get too fancy), there is close proximity to nearly everything, and the neighborhood retains some of its grit, which is important to me.
So that was where I planted my roots. In 2010 I bought what I thought might be my last apartment (should I remain single for the rest of my life, this is where I wanted to be) on the northern edge of Hell’s Kitchen, only a couple of blocks from Columbus Circle. It was also about this time that Trader Joe’s opened up on Broadway and 72nd Street. This pushed me to expand my world a little bit further north during weekend walks, venturing up to 72nd Street on a somewhat regular basis, and all areas in between.
Then things change….
Several hours into my first date with Yoav (who has lived on the UWS for the past 15 years), I asked him if he saw himself as a New Yorker for life. His response was a resounding yes. That was when the seed was planted that I too may one day become an Upper West Sider.
Several months into our relationship it became clear that we were at some point going to be living together. So (partly for shits and giggles) we started going to open houses to get an idea of what we could afford and what neighborhood we wanted. We explored apartments in Hell’s Kitchen and the UWS, where that seed was germinating. I have always had long preconceived notions of the neighborhood. It was filled with beautiful tree-lined streets filled with amazing brownstones and stunning apartment houses. But it was too residential (like the east side), not interesting enough, and it was certainly too far north to walk anywhere from my front door.
I WAS DEAD WRONG. It turns out that I am actually very much the type of guy to fit into the UWS. I am a middle-aged waspy gay man, married to my amazing (Jewish) husband. I am creative, intellectual, and firmly rooted in living in New York City for life. The UWS it turns out, really is the perfect place for me make my (our) home. Wikipedia describes the Upper West Side like this: “It has the reputation of being home to New York City’s cultural, intellectual hub” Which totally makes sense.
Having now lived on the UWS since January, it turns out that all of the preconceived fears I had are somewhat true, but in the end, they arr also absolute non deal-breakers. Yes, I cannot just walk out my front door and walk to MoMA in 15 minutes, and it is very residential… But Broadway is the spine that gives the UWS it’s backbone and provides just enough urban chaos for me to be happy…. It also has sufficient grit to make me feel at home. I just hope it doesn’t get too clean in the future.