The Upper West Side Returns to Life
Given Jacobs 1961 critiques of the physical layout of the UWS and the misguided efforts to "renew" it, one might expect today to find a hopeless neighborhood similar to the South Side of Chicago, the North Side of St. Louis or any neighborhood within five miles of downtown Detroit. However, something funny happened on the way to the ghetto.
Social considerations aside, the UWS is geographically blessed with conditions that make it friendly to upper-middle class professionals and their families:
- It is fairly close to the midtown business district
- It is served by two high-frequency subway lines that permit rapid access to the rest of Manhattan
- It nestled between two large, recreation-friendly and, today, well-maintained city parks
- It has a large stock of attractive Gilded-Age architecture surrounded by comparatively wide tree-lined sidewalks.
The ills of the area in the 1950s and 1960s reduced rents, making it attractive to an intellectual class of writers, doctors, academics and others who, ironically, were being driven out of Jacob's Greenwich Village by rising housing costs. This group effectively formed a self-reinforcing and regenerative enclave, largely along West End Avenue (Wilson 1987, 36). The subsequent influx of higher income people in the late 1960s attracted businesses back into the neighborhood, even though crime (largely youth-driven) remained high (Pileggi 1969).
The large-scale renewal efforts that Jacobs so abhorred did have some success in removing concentrations of poor residents (along with their social pathologies and unattractiveness to the wealthy) and replacing their neighborhoods with with middle-class housing. By the 1970s, slum clearance efforts had exhausted the available supplies of large "blighted" neighborhoods in the area and, thereafter, individual tax-delinquent properties were seized by the city and promptly resold to avoid the deleterious effects of abandoned buildings on surrounding neighborhoods (Wilson 1987, 31). The Lincoln Square Urban Renewal project had eradicated the poor neighborhoods in the southern part of the UWS and served as a catalyst for more private development in the area. To a lesser extent, Park West and the West Side Urban Renewal Project served a similar function in the northeast part of the neighborhood.
Although disputes between community activists, developers and the city resulted in delays and modifications to plans, by the 1980s the neighborhood had been, "demographically restructured to a degree unparalleled in Manhattan," and was now largely an enclave for the upper-middle- and upper-class. (Wilson 1987, 39-45). While one can question whether the neighborhood would still have gentrified in a more organic and less disruptive manner without the massive urban renewal programs, their contribution to the neighborhood's economic rebirth is fairly clear.
Next: Jacobs' Criteria for Success