West Side Urban Renewal
Dense development of the Upper West Side largely occurred in the last two decades of the 19th century. The arrival of the Ninth Avenue elevated rail line in 1879 opened the neighborhood to upwardly mobile middle class families. By the end of the 1920s building boom, Central Park West, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive were lined with fashionable high-rise apartment houses, while the cross streets were dominated by low-rise brownstones.
The economic travails of the 1930s lead to subdivision of many of the rooms in the area as well as poor maintenance for buildings overall. After World War II, African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants replaced middle-class Irish and Jewish residents as the housing stock and quality of life in the community continued to deteriorate (Gratz, 2010, pp 199)
The West Side Urban Renewal began in 1955 when Mayor Robert F. Wagner directed James Felt of the City Planning Commission to study housing deterioration and social unrest on the West Side (NHCPC, 1979, pp 1-3). The commission issued its study in April of 1958 and released a preliminary plan for the West Side Renewal Area in May of 1959. The area covered 20 blocks bounded by 87th Street on the South, 97th Street on the North, Amsterdam Avenue on the West and Central Park West on the East.
In contrast to the wholesale clearance and rebuild approach of Robert Moses that was used for Lincoln Center to the south and Park West Village to the North, Felt's approach was to selectively demolish targeted structures for private redevelopment (largely along the avenues) while retaining and renovating many of the area's attractive but poorly maintained brownstone structures. The process ended up taking over 15 years longer than planned, with at least two brownstones lingering in dereliction as late as 1995 (Rozhon 1995).
The project can, in some respects, be regarded as a success, with the area becoming one of the city's most desirable (and expensive) by the dawn of the 21st century, although giving the West Side Urban Renewal project sole credit for the revitalization may be a bit of an oversimplification. Wilson (1979) makes a detailed analysis of the transformation by considering the physical, economic, social and institutional environment as well as issues of power and class.
Gratz (2010) argues that the neighborhood was saved by its own virtues (parks, transportation, shopping) IN SPITE of the highly disruptive urban renewal projects foisted upon it. And if Jacobs (1964, pp 187-199) is to be believed, escalating rents as well as homogenious age and architecture may have planted the seeds of the neighborhood's cyclical destruction.
The preliminary plan (linked below) is a fascinating read. Colorful, attractive and full of certitude, it in may ways reads like a contemporary piece of urban planning rhetoric. It's not difficult to imagine the book's outlandish promises coming out of the mouth of Michael Bloomberg, albeit from a firmly privatized rather than public context.
This photo tour roughly follows a loop up Columbus Avenue and back down Amsterdam Avenue
Next: Willets Point