From 1965 to 1969 we lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Now we've returned for a month-long visit. In days of yore, we were the busy young parents pushing our baby carriage down Broadway. Now forty years more 'mature,' we step aside as nannies manuever the twins (without question there are both more nannies and more twins) around and past us.
And the eternal West Side -- has it also matured? Certainly it's a more prosperous neighborhood and a more crowded one. With scores of giant high-rise apartment houses added in the intervening years, it's become even more densely populated. Paradoxically, it's also safer. In the 1960s, received wisdom stated that to wander onto 85th Street or onto Columbus Avenue after dark was to risk death or at least a good mugging. Now the area is peaceful morning, noon and night, and newly-fashionable Columbus Avenue houses dozens of trendy ethnic restaurants. Forty years ago, it was foolish to venture across Central Park to the aristocratic East Side, where, it was rumored, there lived people who were fair-skinned and blond. Some areas of the Park, like The Ramble, were famously dangerous and were visited only by those who were itching for action. Now, single women jog without the least concern. We took advantage of the new freedom by taking frequent jaunts to the row of fabulous museums along Fifth Avenue. (In the 1960s, museums were difficult for West Siders to access but admission was free; today, they're easy to reach but the ticket prices are staggering.) In the good old days, West Side street-corners were gathering points for enterprising drug-dealers. On this visit, I didn't spot a single dealer or a single transaction. Moreover, the neighborhood used to be thick with policemen on patrol; this time, police are scarce and apparently unnecessary. Why the improvement in public safety? In a word, money. Only the rich can afford to live on the Upper West Side, and rich people don't need to knock you down and empty your wallet. They have other fish to fry.
There's a new feature of transportation: droves of briefcase-bearing suit-wearers are shuttled Wallstreetway in luxurious "private cars." Meanwhile, the subway is as efficient and as filthy as ever, but nowadays we pay not with tokens but with "metro cards." The New York Times, then 10 cents, is now $1.25; it has fewer columns, a larger font, and poorer writing. More changes: in yesteryear, a man shouting in public was very likely a paranoid schizophrenic; now a noisy talker has a gimmick in his ear and a cell phone and he's doing nothing more lunatic than snapping up undercapitalized mortgages.
Dogs, here as elsewhere, are horribly indulged. One day we peeked into a "pet exercise" gymnasium and later were amused by a well-appointed van labeled "Pet Limousine." Although there are many more curs, there are fewer piles of canine poopery on the sidewalks; most dog-walkers make use of plastic bags. Thank you, dog-walkers.
Affordable supermarkets have disappeared and there are only specialty food shops where the prices are beyond astronomical. But where do the waitresses, cooks, cleaning ladies, nannies, cashiers, shop girls, bank tellers, kioskers, subway maintenance men, bus drivers, janitors, and policemen shop? Where, in fact, do they live? Not in the neighborhood; not since the entire West Side went condo.
It's still a polyglot world, but there's much less Spanish and a lot more Russian, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic.
More novelties: there's a Duane Reade (sometimes two) on every street and there's a second crowded Starbucks visible from the Starbucks where you sit poring over your wireless laptop and nursing your gigantico skinny dry vanilla latte. In the 1960s, there were seven movie theaters within walking distance -- including the New Yorker and the Thalia, the mother churches of cinema worship. Now, there are none -- nor even a single dvd rental store. It's all Netflix and downloads.
There's been a phenomenal growth of personal services: not just the barbershops and hairdressers of old, but also whole galaxies of nail care shops. Who could have imagined that in the new millennium, fingernails would become the cornerstone of the economy? An economy of which I'm not a part; my nail care consists of occasionally biting off a sliver of stray keratin and taking a cosmetic nibble or two at the paronychium. I don't believe I've spent a nickel, lifetime, on my nails, nor do I intend to do so. Nope, no manicures, nor pedicures, nor medicures (what the heck is a medicure?) nor massages nor aromatherapy for me. Nor will I have my ears candled (a process that one medical website calls 'useless and dangerous") or my eyebrows threaded or any part of my body, public or private, waxed. It appears that every facial feature and every organ has an entire industry dedicated to its hygiene and its remediation. Is the upper West Side experiencing an outbreak of good health? Or a triumph of narcissism?
One final observation: since we lived here, many expensively-architected fancy-shmancy private schools have appeared. Meanwhile, public schools have been allowed to slide further into poverty. Ugly, concrete block buildings surrounded by chainlink fence and razor wire -- not temples of learning, but prisons.The gap between rich and poor, evident then, has become a chasm. Manhattan is safer and more livable than it was (at least for the properous), but it will not be truly healed until its citizenry moves beyond "private wealth and public squalor."