Jerry Rio, in one of his first appearances in front of a camera stands on a street corner in front of a fruit stand, looking for celebrities on the corner of 72nd and Broadway. The year, I think, is 1991, the first year I lived in NYC. Did celebrities hang out in the Upper West Side in 1991? Regardless, Jerry doesn’t find any. Instead, he interviews local people the odd time they slow down for the camera, wondering aloud if they are celebrities in hiding.
It is amazing to look back on the Manhattan of the era. The Upper West Side looks so down at heel, a little grey, with the derelict looking 72nd subway station in the background, the kind of shambling fruit stand that was so common in the New York of the era. And the people! Not many pretty faces here. So very guarded in their street face, yet surprisingly open once that guard comes down, even disarmingly naive once they slow down to talk to the camera.
That was one of the first things that struck me when I first came to the city, the contrast between NYers very guarded, even hostile public face, and their open-ness when they let their guard down. Basically, once they’d assessed that you weren’t crazy or dangerous, that you didn’t want something, they were happy to talk to you, often in that same sweet open-ness they show in the video. The Upper West Side was a still a little rough in the early 90’s. When I sold books in front of Columbia, the homeless still slept in the traffic islands, and panhandlers lined the pavements, especially around the big intersections. This was the height of the crack epidemic, and some streets on the Upper West Side bordering poorer areas could be dangerous. Amazingly, looking back on it now, you could still rent rooms, cheap, in the plentiful SRO hotels.
What a change.
I passed through the Upper West Side last week. You wouldn’t know that the world of Jerry Rio’s video had ever existed. The people looked sleek, even more sleek than the affluent of the Upper East Side a decade ago. At least the morning I was there, they seemed curiously relaxed, like money and those grand, doorman protected Edwardian buildings had insulated them from earthly cares. Even their kids were quiet and well-behaved, in marked contrast to chronically unhappy children of those strivers in, say, Park Slope.
But look back at that more humble, working class New York City. I know it wasn’t necessarily better, but I think NY lost a lot when it chased the non-affluent out of areas like the Upper West Side.