My 15-Minute City: Upper West Side, New York City
I laid eyes on New York City for the first time as an adult in 1986. I was in my mid-20s and had been traveling in Europe, so I re-entered the U.S. at JFK Airport. In fact, I’d been a bit cooped up overseas (for reasons I won’t get into), and I no longer had a job to return to in Texas. So I felt liberated, footloose, and free, and I decided to stay in New York a few weeks. As luck would have it, my first city host was my step-cousin’s boyfriend, who worked for the New York Times and lived in a basement apartment at 73rd Street and Central Park West. It was across the street from the Dakota, where John Lennon had lived and died six years earlier, and near where the Central Park Conservancy—with Yoko Ono’s instigation and her $1 million donation—had recently created Strawberry Fields. Here, I was smitten with the city.
My other hosts during that trip lived in the Alphabet City section of the East Village, at the time grungy and downtrodden, with trashy gutters and dive bars, a dealer on nearly every corner and a hooker on every other one. These hosts were former college buddies, living a bohemian lifestyle full of chemically fueled late-night hijinks and punk rock slam-dance parties. Eye-and-ear-opening stuff. Here, I was smitten as well.
As I couch-surfed and shuffled between hosts, I zigzagged on foot through dozens of city blocks and landmarks—Times Square, Union Square, Washington Square Park—marveling at how one city could contain so much beauty and blight and bustling energy. But of all these scenes, the square mile surrounding the placid, teardrop-shaped mini-park called Strawberry Fields struck me as the heart of the Big Apple. I still feel that way after living here for three decades.
In 1985, the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park was dedicated as a “living memorial” to John Lennon by Mayor Ed Koch and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. A few years later, I moved to New York. I now live less than a mile away on 89th Street, and I often return to this area to get my bearings. This is an incredible place for outdoor yoga. The blocks circling this spot contain some of the city’s most exclusive residence buildings, grandest natural splendor, and richest museum offerings.
Recently, I started a neighborhood sojourn at the New York Historical Society, at 77th Street and Central Park West. Out front, visitors are greeted by lifesize statues of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, apt bookends for the historical lore in the museum’s permanent collection. This includes a pithy installment on slavery in New York City, which was a major center for buying and selling slaves for more than two centuries, before the city abolished the practice just a few years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.
Back on Central Park West, we see glorious Beaux-Arts buildings lined up in a row. First is the Kenilworth, at 75th Street, a limestone-and-brick wonder completed in 1907, when the Upper West Side was taking shape as an early suburb to the burgeoning metropolis a couple of miles south. Now home to celebrities such as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this 12-floor co-op lists residences for $5 million and up.
One block down CPW, between 74th and 75th Streets, sits the San Remo—the first twin-towered building in New York, designed by famed architect Emory Roth and completed in 1930 (just in time for the Great Depression). At 27 stories, with each tower spanning 10 of them, it hovers over the neighborhood and boasts unusually large interior spaces for Central Park–facing apartments. This has attracted celebrity owners ranging from Stephen Sondheim to Tiger Woods, Mary Tyler Moore to Steve Jobs (who never moved in but sold his unit to Bono). At age 26, Madonna was famously turned down by the co-op board. Prices start at $3 million, but Demi Moore set a UWS record when she sold her unit for $45 million in 2017.
When it was completed in 1884 at 72nd Street and CPW, the Dakota was the lone tall building (10 stories) for miles in each direction. “Probably it was called ‘Dakota’ because it was so far west and so far north,” said George P. Douglass, the Dakota’s longtime manager, according to news clips and books. Visionnaire Edward Cabot Clark died two years before it was finished, but the Dakota put the UWS on the map for well-appointed buyers. Resident celebs have ranged from Judy Garland to Joe Namath to Rudolph Nureyev. Yoko Ono still lives in the seventh-story penthouse she shared with John Lennon and their son Sean. After the former Beatle’s tragic 1980 murder at its front archway, the Dakota’s board became became leery about showbiz types; Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and Melanie Griffith were denied access. Bids for a place here start at $6.7 million.
Turning at the Dakota to enter Central Park, we encounter a small, hilly cove called Pleasant Place, sporting spring flowers as a gateway to the pastoral scenery ahead. The Strawberry Fields section contains plant specimens donated by more than 121 countries around the world, signifying the concept (as the nearby plaque reads): “Imagine all the people living life in peace.”
The “Imagine” Mosaic in Strawberry Fields was created by a team of Italian craftsmen and donated by the city of Naples. It was apparently built on shifting ground and underwent repairs in 2013. It perennially attracts tourists and serves as a focal point for musical gatherings, often on birth and/or death anniversaries involving John Lennon and the Beatles.
Central Park’s West Drive, between Strawberry Fields and The Lake, regularly hosts busking musicians. Here we get a lively earful of trad jazz from Ryo’s Trio: Ryo Sasaki, trumpet; Bill Crow, bass; and Greg Ruggiero, guitar.
Just east of Strawberry Fields lies The Lake, an essential part of the Greensward Plan of Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. When it was excavated in 1857, this was an untamed swamp; the next year it was one of the first park sections opened to the public, for ice skating in winter and rowing during warmer weather. (The surrounding Central Park was not completed until 1876, following the razing of the nearby African-American settlement of Seneca Village after it was seized by eminent domain.) The park’s second largest body of water after the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, The Lake covers some 20 acres.
Down the footpath is the Eaglevale Bridge, also known as the 77th Street Stone Arch, built in 1890 out of blocks of gneiss rock. It’s Central Park’s only double-archway bridge, connecting CPW and West Drive by overpassing both a bridle path and a footpath. Both of these were separate but equal parts of the park’s design, until horseback riding waned in popularity; it virtually vanished following the sale and closure of the nearby Claremont Riding Academy in 2007. At top left is the southeast tower of the American Museum of Natural History.
Fronted here by a visiting school bus, the American Museum of Natural History spans four CPW blocks between 77th and 81st Streets. Inside lies a permanent collection that takes days to fully explore, ranging from the gargantuan dinosaur skeletons in the Fossil Halls to the extraterrestrial “space shows” in the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Through August 8, the AMNH special exhibition The Nature of Color is geared to kids—but adults can learn from its immersive displays about how objects create, store, and reflect different hues and contrasting moods.
A key part of AMNH’s The Nature of Color exhibition is a photo show by Brazilian portraitist Angélica Dass, The Humanae Project, which seeks to deconstruct stereotypes about race divisions by exploring people’s common humanity. In each portrait, Dass creates the background by taking an 11×11-pixel sample from the subject’s nose and matching it with the industrial palette Pantone®, which serves as a caption. “In fact, people are 99.9% genetically identical,” the wall text explains. “We all share the same ancient ancestors, and we are all one species.” Dass writes that in this ongoing project she is “attempting to document humanity’s true colors rather than the untrue labels ‘white,’ ‘red,’ ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ associated with race.” (Photographs © Angélica Dass.)
One passage from The Nature of Color exhibit is reflected in a nearby park creek: “Green leaves contain chlorophyll, which captures energy from light to allow plants to grow,” it reads. “Chlorophyll absorbs many colors of light, but not green. The green light that bounces off leaves is what makes them look green.” The surrounding colors are taken in; those not absorbed are reflected outward. Not unlike people in the city.
All images by the author (except where noted).