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History of the Upper West Side

A map showing Upper West Side neighborhoods
Figure 1. A map showing Upper West Side neighborhoods

Geographical location

The Upper West Side neighbors borough and Manhattan in New York City; it is located in between Central Park which is on the eastern side and the Hudson River which is located on the western side, above the West 59th Street and below 125th Street.1 The region covers the Manhattan valley as well as the area that formerly comprised the Bloomingdale District; however, moving from west towards east, “the avenues of the Upper West Side are Riverside Drive (12th Avenue), West End Avenue (11th Avenue), Amsterdam Avenue (10th Avenue), Columbus Avenue (9th Avenue), and Central Park West (8th Avenue)”2.

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Historically, the Upper West Side neighborhood included the Harsenville suburbs, 65th Street, and the areas that were adjacent to the Hudson and the Morningside Heights; however, today, Upper West Side contains Lincoln Center which is one of the world’s excellent performing-arts venues; the Time Warner Center which has superb shops; Jazz at Lincoln Center; the Mandarin Oriental Hotel; the Whole Foods Market, which is regarded as one of the most expensive food courts in the world; and the American Museum of Natural History3.


The name Bloomingdale from the Dutch was used to refer “to the west side of Manhattan from about 23rd Street up to the Hollow Way (modern 125th Street)”4. Various affluent individuals managed to establish farms and homes in this region, for instance, Walter Mac, born and spent his childhood in the area between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, describes the area as a suburban haven which was far from the noise and confusion of downtown Manhattan5. Generally, because of the low population and activities in the area, parents freely accepted their children to play stickball and tag in the middle of the street. And as Mac observed, “each block of brownstones was more like a small village unto itself than part of a thriving, prosperous, driving city going through growing pains and everyone had the time for neighborly pleasantries”6.

What remains as evidence in the Upper West Side district are the distinctive buildings that were constructed during the fifty years in which substantial development occurred in the neighborhood. For instance, the launch of the Ninth Avenue marked the grand beginning of the railway in 1879 along Columbus Avenue and as a result, the vast regions of the Upper West Side that initially were unoccupied were opened up to speculative development. This saw hundreds of neo-Grec, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, and the neo-Renaissance rowhouses being built on the major side streets between Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue while houses for the working class and French flats for middle-class households were constructed near Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.7 Grant apartments such as Dakota were built in this early period whereas apartment-house construction in the district took place during the early years of the 20th century; such constructions included the great Beaux-Arts apartment buildings that comprised the Prasada (Charles Romeyn, 1904-07), the Langham (Clinton & Russell, 1904-07), the Kenilworth (Townsend, Steinle & Haskell, 1906-08) and the Saint Urbane (Robert T. Lyons, 1904-05)8.

As early as 1900, Upper West Side comprised approximately two hundred blocks, but the region remained largely undeveloped. The Ninth Avenue formed the main and only rapid transit railway; this forced most buildings in Upper West Side to be located along the Columbus Avenue route and to the nearest two boulevards, Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue9. Earlier in the years the 1880s to 1890s, the western side had grown rapidly as a result of people like Edward S. Clark, Benard S. Levy, and Edward Kilpatrick, who constructed upper-middle-class row houses on the side streets below the 79th Street and also stylish apartments such as the Endicott, Nebraska, and Lyndhurst on Columbus Avenue10. At the same time, the western avenues such as the Broadway, West End, and Riverside were avoided by many people due to their poor transport, and this trend extended up to late 1900 where it was observed that almost half of the west side was a collection of empty rock-strewn earth, farm gardens, and shanties11.

As of 1902, the Upper West Side, 67th Street was transformed into a distinctive commune of apartment houses that were largely designed in a neo-Gothic mode with the double-height studio for artists. In the 1920s, large apartment houses and apartment hotels were constructed along Central Park West and other streets in the district but these constructions were halted by the 1929 Great Depression. But of important note is the fact that, during the entire span of development, important institutional buildings were put up which included the museums, churches, and synagogues some of which remain as landmarks.

With the arrival of the subway, the Upper West Side began to experience transformation, for example, a construction boom began which led to the increase in value of assessed taxable land west of Amsterdam Avenue12. In turn, there arose a phalanx of huge, multistory apartment buildings on the side of West End above the 72nd Street that turned it into a solid middle-class avenue that was characterized by shade trees, empty sidewalks and blank windows “that communicated an air of bourgeois respectability”13. More importantly, there were the buildings that were erected on Riverside Drive, which in turn made Riverside Drive to be the point for spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Palisades. For many years, bicyclists and carriage drivers made this wooded part to be a leisure ground and also to act as superb public for memorials such as those of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to the Union War dead at 89th Street14. Moving from Riverside Drive to the Hudson was Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside Park where trees, shrubs, and flowers were planted in a pattern that resembled an English garden and this scenery prompted the erection of story apartments on Riverside Drive that were occupied by servants. One of the notable people to put up houses here was William Randolph Hearst, who was a newspaper publisher.

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After 1904, Broadway became a hub for the construction of luxurious houses and most houses built served as retail businesses on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floor15. But it was the IRT that made Upper West Side become one of the densely populated and heavily built-up urban centers. One resident notes how Upper West Side had changed from that of the 1890s to the one of 1921 which had, “thick traffic that police officers had to be stationed on the corners of 72nd and 86th streets to help pedestrians cross the street”16.

Upper West Side today

Although it is still dominated by some of the dazzling apartment buildings that were constructed in the nineteenth century, the Upper West Side has been described to have a more “unbuttoned vibe than its counterpart across Central Park”17. The Upper West Side, as evident from history, blossomed during the period of immigration of urbane Europeans, and the population culturally crossbred with the local migrants who were mostly adventurers18. This resulted in the creation of a mixture of people and buildings with a flavor different from that of the East. Today, Upper West Side is a nexus of group art concerts, opera, theater, and film that constitute the cultural epicenter for the New York audiences. At the same time, Upper West Side has become increasingly an area where political activists voice their concerns that range from those touching the community issues to those that are national19. Other notable features are the enormous hills and hollows that promote tourism activities in the area, monuments, playgrounds, and various sports facilities.

Dunford and Holland describe Upper West Side to be New York’s “most desirable addresses, and tends to attract New York’s cultural elite as well as new-money types, although there is also a small but jarringly visible homeless presence”20. At the same time, Upper West Side has developed to become one of the wealthiest regions of New York with Broadway being the artery of the district. This is cited by Dunford and Holland who observe that, as you move west, things become wealthier and this wealth continues to Central Park and Riverside Drive which become the epicenters of prosperity. Of note again, is the fact that Upper West Side has some of the modern high-rise apartment buildings and also the historic brownstones, dozens of restaurants, outdoor cafes and bars, clothing stores, gourmet food emporiums, and a general casual mix of people.21

The picture of the region does not end here, other notable features an individual is likely to observe are; along the Amsterdam and Columbus avenues there are enclaves of public housing with some indicated SRO (single room occupancy) hotels and the down-beat street hustle where most of the less-well-off Latino neighborhoods are concentrated. However, the brighter story of these enclaves is the fact that the areas have started to develop, with most middle-class families moving into the northern areas that had earlier been isolated in terms of inhabitation. Lastly, Upper West Side constitutes a region with some excellent tourist hotels. The hotels serve the many tourists who troop in the area and other key personalities who visit the nearby parks.

But all is no sweet news about Upper West Side, as one writer in the New York magazine point out; there has been a great transformation of Upper West Side from that of the 1900s to a different one of early 21st century. The writer observes that the south continues to become capital-intensive and hyper stylish and a place where coffee-bar saturation is a topic of concern, while the north continues to be racially diverse and devoid of pretension. However, although it is vibrant, the north continues to grow more and more desperate, with beggars crowding the streets, crime activities skyrocketing at 96th Street, and also drug-trafficking and drug abuse is becoming rampant22.


  1. Anonymous. Guide to New York City Landmarks. NY, John Wiley and Sons, 2008. Web.
  2. Dunford, Martin and Holland, Jack. Rough Guide to New York City. NY, Rough Guides, 2002. Web.
  3. Hood, Clifton. The building of the subways and how they transformed New York. (Attached notes). New York Magazine. New York Magazine, Vol 27, No, 17. NY, New York Media, LLC, 1994. Web.
  4. Silverman, Brian. Frommer’s Portable New York City 2009. NJ, Wiley Publishing Inc, 2009. Web.
  5. Waxman, Sarah. The History of the Upper West Side. 2010. Web.
  6. White, Norval, Willensky, Elliot and Leadon, Fran. Aia Guide to New York City. NY, Oxford University Press, 2010. Web.


  1. Brian Silverman, Frommer’s portable New York City 2009, (NJ, Wiley Publishing Inc, 2009), p.28.
  2. Clifton Hood, The building of the subways and how they transformed New York (Attached notes) p.25
  3. Brian Silverman, ibid, p.28
  4. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.24
  5. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.24
  6. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.24
  7. Anonymous, Guide to New York City Landmarks (NY, John Wiley and Sons, 2008) p.130
  8. Anonymous, ibid, p.130
  9. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.24
  10. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.25
  11. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.25
  12. Sarah Waxman, The History of the Upper West Side, 2010.
  13. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.25
  14. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.25
  15. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.26
  16. Clifton Hood, ibid, p.26
  17. Martin Dunford and Jack Holland, Rough Guide to New York City (NY, Rough Guides, 2002), p.203.
  18. Norval White, Elliot Willensky and Fran Leadon, Aia Guide to New York City (NY, Oxford University Press, 2010), p.350.
  19. Norval White, Elliot Willensky and Fran Leadon, ibid, p.350.
  20. Martin Dunford and Jack Holland, ibid, p.203.
  21. Martin Dunford and Jack Holland, ibid, p.204
  22. New York Magazine (NY, New York Media, LLC, 1994), p.38

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