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West Side Story: the final act isn't over for this once run-down area of Manhattan.

"You've gotta see the Upper West Side the next time you're in New York!" My friend's voice was insistent.

"This is really the undiscovered part of town! The rents are a lot lower, and there are still places being fixed up, and there's all kinds of new restaurants all over the place. It's only a few blocks from Central Park, the Lincoln Center is right nearby, and you can get over to Fifth Avenue and all that stuff in just a few minutes. It's great! I'll show you around the next time you're here."

My skepticism about the livability of Manhattan aside, I wasn't sure I'd have time between business to poke around a gentrifying neighborhood on my next visit. Maybe Gary's speculating in real estate, I thought, and he figures he can talk an out-oftowner into investing in someflat he's fixing up. Gentrification's no new thing. No hot story in this one, right?

Wrong-as 45 minutes between appointments on my next visit proved. Faced with a little time to kill, I decided to give my enthusiastic acquaintance a buzz. Mid-morning though it was, "I'll be there right away" was the immediate response from Gary's lower-Manhattan workplace.

It was a bright, chill April day following a stretch of gloom and drizzle, and Gary was still in winter garb and muffler as we strode up Columbus from its intersection with 63rd. "You went up Broadway?" he asked dismissively after I told him of a short exploratory stroll that morning. "Naw, all the good stuff's on Columbus, straight north of here.

"This area's great! This is the next hot neighborhood in New York. It's an old ethnic Jewish and Italian neighborhood. It never really went downhill that bad, but the real estate stayed so low by comparison that it's the best bargain in the city now." Gary was marching double-time along the east side of Columbus. His breath still showed in the morning air, and he moved quickly in and out of the long shadows as the morning sun found its way between the buildings and the alleys to the sidewalk.

"Whole thing started with Lincoln Center." He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the famous marble colonnades, receding rapidly into the distance at our pace"You know, those were projects in the '5Os-that was the neighborhood of West Side Story." My mind entertained a brief vision of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic over the very spot where Maria had cradled the dying Tony. "Artists and musicians started moving into the area, and then related-type businesses came to be near their best customers." Gary whirled and jabbed at several targets. "Like the coffee house there. And the Hotel Empire back there. Almost all their trade comes from the music business."

We had run the gauntlet of a side street, narrowly escaping extermination at the hands of a Saab Turbo that screamed by from a standing start like a Sidewinder missile. "So a lot of the music people started moving into the area. And then boutiques and shops began to appear. And the good rents made it attractive for the young professionals. Like me.

"Now it's the restaurants that are the big thing here. You can eat almost anything within just a few blocks of here." My mind was reeling too quickly to take in every "Moroccan," "Ethiopian," and "Thai" on the signs Gary was waving his forefinger at. I was too busy trying to construct some generalizations, some rules of thumb to describe this jumble of delicatessens and pastry shops and dry cleaners and pricy boutiques (one dress: $200). Narrow holes-in-thewall, many of them, and perhaps every fifth shop a derelict hanger-on from the old days, but the sounds of hammer and nail and saw on wood were in the air.

The initiation went on for several more blocks. Finally, Gary pointed at a not-too-distant landmark and said, "Up there's the Museum of Natural History. That's sort of the north end of the neighborhood. Well, that's about it," he concluded with an unusual lack of hyperbole as he slowed up. I pulled up gratefully. In a tenblock forced march I had visited the four corners of the earth, seen all the wares of boutiquedom, and caught glimpses of pre-yuppie Manhattan. And I still had time left before my next appointment.

"Hey, you wanna take an early lunch? There's a great place down near Lincoln Center-the Ginger Man. It's got this 1890s bar you won't believe. Hey, and tonight, let's check out some of the piano bars around here. These are really good places, good crowds, good atmosphere. Hey, there's a gypsy cab we can take to the restaurant. Hey, you!" he yelled, waving at a derelict vehicle with a placard on its dashboard. "Have I told you about gypsy cabs?" he resumed, turning toward me. "Well, see, there are these guys who can't get the regular medallions. . . ."
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Author:Roberts, Robin
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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