Saturday, August 24, 2019

Then and Now: Columbus Avenue at West 73rd Street, NYC

73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.

West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC,
73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC, 1979.
Sometimes I make these comparisons and they surprise me, but for different reasons. It always amazes me when an ordinary street scene remains unchanged over time as if forgotten by history. Manhattan's residential neighborhoods are extremely stable over time. The changes are usually very subtle, but there are changes even if they aren't very noticeable. However, sometimes the things that remain are as interesting as the things that have changed. In other words, the fact that things haven't changed is a feat in itself. I saw the above wintry picture of the Upper West Side and wondered what this quaint scene might look recently. So, I decided to do a comparison of West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue from 1979 to 2019.

West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC,
73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC, May 2019 (Google Street View).
Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint an exact location and orientation, but not this time. It was easy to find the right location, which is (directly in front of us) the southeast corner of West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC. First of all, the street signs are obvious in the 1979 photo, but even aside from that, the buildings are eerily unchanged. In fact, the entire scene is unchanged, as if encased in amber. I write that with a hint of wonder because, well, it's been forty years. You would expect something to change. A few things indeed have changed, and we'll get to those below. But realistically, a time traveler from 1979 plopped down at this same spot in 2019 would have a hard time feeling at all disoriented.

West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC,
Southeast corner of 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC, October 2017 (Google Street View).
The first thing that leaps out at me is that the streetcorner itself is magically preserved. In fact, I struggle to find anything that's different about it. The only thing that leaps out is that they have replaced the green parcel bin with a trash can. Hey, I guess that's progress. The "Don't Walk" signs were replaced with similar boxes with symbols in the early 21st Century. I'm a bit surprised that there's still a mailbox on the corner - the same one, most likely - because I thought they removed them during the various security scares of the 21st Century. However, there it sits, bothering nobody and just silently doing its job forty years later. The beautiful rental building on the corner, 101 West 73rd Street, was built in 1920. The owners decided to paint the stripes in grey rather than bright red somewhere along the way, I suppose that counts as a big change. There seems to be a lot of subtle toning down of bright colors all across the city for some reason, and why that might be I have no idea, but it seems to be "a thing." Anyway, it's a classic building with a lot of character, and those types of buildings are a pleasure to see survive.

West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC,
73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC, north side of the street in October 2017 (Google Street View).
And, just when I make a blanket statement about colors across the city becoming more muted over time, I run into something to contradict me. The building on the northeast corner of West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, 100 West 73rd Street, has gone from a bland beige to a funky violet. Who knows, maybe it's owned by NYU grads. It also was built in 1920 and is another rental building. Incidentally, if you are wondering what rentals go for in a nice Upper West Side building like this, you might luck into one for around $1800/month in 2019, but you're more likely looking at over $2000/month for just about any studio (which is pretty much all the building has). Is that reasonable? Actually, it's pretty standard for Manhattan, though of course, you can find cheaper if you find a "deal."

West 73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC,
73rd Street at Columbus Avenue, NYC, north side of the street in October 2017 (Google Street View).
Otherwise, the scene is a pretty picture of gentrification. Now, that's a controversial word to use, and you could argue that nothing of the sort has taken place here because, well, it was nice back in 1979, too. And, to be truthful, it's hard to argue with that. However, the scene was much starker in 1979. They've since added trees, you have lots of cute little cafes and fancy restaurants instead of cleaners and other common businesses, and the buildings themselves appear better maintained (at least on the outside, but the outside is usually a good predictor of what the inside looks like, too). You no longer have splotchy paint jobs, the fire escapes are now tastefully painted, there now are elaborate awnings. It certainly looks more prosperous to me, though the old view with its rough edges had a certain charm to it, too.

126 West 73rd Street, NYC,
126 West 73rd Street, NYC, October 2017 (Google Street View).
The tall white building in the background of the 1979 photo is still there, though a bit obscured by the trees. It was built in 1886 (some sources say 1914-1915) by Henry Struss and is located in a landmark district between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Just after the 1979 picture was taken, 126 West 73rd Street was converted to coop apartments in 1980. It is made of a singular steel frame with a glazed terra cotta facade that has been restored. So, there have been some changes going on, just not ones that are obvious to the naked eye. This neighborhood must have looked quite different back around 1915 with just this 13-floor building standing before all the lower buildings around it sprang up as the city expanded northward.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Sometimes the lack of change is a feat in itself, and I'm sure the residents of West 73rd Street like the very subtle changes that have taken place on their street over the past forty years. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!


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