On West 89th St., Lives Reflect Upheaval :: 1987

ON WEST 89TH ST., LIVES REFLECT UPHEAVAL

By SARA RIMER Published: August 7, 1987, New York Times

LEAD: Nowhere is the recent transformation of upper Broadway more visible, and more deeply felt, than along the two block stretch between 88th and 90th Streets.

Nowhere is the recent transformation of upper Broadway more visible, and more deeply felt, than along the two block stretch between 88th and 90th Streets.

The locksmith, a victim of rising rents, has moved to what had been a candy store on Amsterdam Avenue, his place taken by a lingerie shop owned by a woman from Baghdad, Iraq. The florist is struggling to hold onto the shop that has been in his family for 30 years. The bookstore owner is living in San Francisco, his old refuge for the followers of Karl Marx and Allen Ginsburg replaced by a luxury high-rise building that will soon be occupied by investment bankers and lawyers in search of equity.

While many longtime merchants are disappearing, other small businesses, old as well as new, are thriving. After nearly half a century, the sturgeon king of Broadway, Murray Bernstein, retired in prosperity to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but Murray’s Sturgeon Shop lives on. Mr. Bernstein’s hand-picked successor, a one-time social worker who put himself through Columbia University cutting lox, has also opened, with two partners, a seafood restaurant in what used to be a down-at-the-heels bar next door. The restaurant – Docks – is packed seven nights a week. Raffish Yet Intellectual

”This was the hang-out block,” said Judith Rohn, who raised four children in a rent-controlled apartment at Broadway and West 89th Street – ideally located, for her family’s purposes, near good books and better Nova. ”We had block parties, we planted trees. We didn’t know about real estate. We always thought, ‘What will happen will happen and if you ever get a lot of money, you get on a plane and go someplace else.’ It was a different life.”

While the city is, by definition, in constant transition, the two blocks between 88th and 90th Streets had for years seemed almost unchanged – a raffish yet intellectual Upper West Side oasis to some, like Ms. Rohn, a place of stagnation to others. But now the blocks, along with much of the rest of upper Broadway, are experiencing the kind of gentrification that has already transformed other streets and neighborhoods – Columbus Avenue, SoHo, the East Village.

While some longtime residents can no longer afford the neighborhood’s spiraling cost of living, others got rich overnight when their prewar buildings went co-op and they were able to buy their apartments at insiders’ prices.

It is a time of enormous upheaval, exhilaration and loss, one that raises profound questions among those who live and work here about what their neighborhood – and their city – should be and what it is likely to become.

The blocks are brighter, safer and more traveled. But the new life involves more than just stores, restaurants and high-priced real estate. After years when it had seemed almost forgotten, the Conservative synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, has rebounded, its membership increasing almost overnight from 35 families to 550 families. There are more young children in the neighborhood than there had been in years, and a progressive Jewish day school that opened four years ago with 20 children in one room now occupies an entire building.

Some people, particularly the newcomers discovering what real-estate agents are billing as a ”young, hot neighborhood,” proclaim the changes a renaissance. Others mourn the passing of West Side institutions like the leftist-oriented bookstore and worry that eventually only the rich and the workaholics will inhabit their blocks.

The hundreds of people who work, live and dream along this stretch of Broadway come from big cities and small towns, from Israel, India, France and Poland, from Brooklyn, the Bronx, New Jersey and the Upper East Side. They are all connected by geography and shared rituals.

They get their newspapers from the young Pakistani immigrant who is studying to be a doctor, buy take-out coffee from the Ethiopians at Party Cake, take their shoes to be fixed by an Argentine who once pursued a career in medicine, give money to the homeless man who sits on the sidewalk outside the Red Apple – all within the same two blocks of Broadway.

The changes affect everyone in different ways, merchants and residents, old-timers and newcomers. But some have more at stake than others. Decades of Memories Amid the Renovations

”I hope it falls down,” Lynn Oliver was saying. ”It’s a detriment to society.”

As he often does these midsummer afternoons, the 64-year-old Mr. Oliver was sitting on a wooden bench on the grassy island in the center of bustling Broadway at 89th Street, gazing up at the new high-rise co-op – the Savannah – that stands on the same spot where for 35 years he had a big band recording studio.

”Everyone came to my studio,” Mr. Oliver said as the afternoon rush-hour throngs hurried past him. ”Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, most of the men in Duke Ellington’s band – the Duke was there – Jimmy Dorsey, the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

Mr. Oliver, who still lives in the neighborhood and still leads a big band orchestra, relocated his studio to 505 West 42d Street. But he said it’s not the same and talks of closing it forever.

The city has a short memory. Few of the newcomers know that the southwest corner of 89th Street and Broadway – now the Savannah – was to those who loved it one of the most remarkable corners in the entire city.

The building that was demolished two years ago to make way for the Savannah held, in addition to Mr. Oliver’s studio, the New Yorker movie theater, the New Yorker Bookshop and Benny’s luncheonette – patronized by a mix of writers, actors, psychiatrists, prostitutes, businessmen and young mothers with children.

For two decades, Pete Martin, the Greenwich Village-reared son of an anarchist Italian newspaper publisher, presided over the bookstore. By all accounts, he was more interested in books and people than money.

”Pete felt literature and poetry should be free, that everyone should have access,” Ms. Rohn recalled. ”If you were one of the crowd, you didn’t buy books from Pete. You borrowed them.”

In a recent telephone interview from San Francisco, Mr. Martin, who is now retired, recalled his cramped two-story bookstore, with its large collection of poetry and literature on film and Marxism. ”We had a big psychology section, too,” he said. ”The West Side was always big on psychology.”

Friends have sent the former bookstore owner photographs of the Savannah. ”New York’s always done that -constantly erasing itself and re-creating itself,” he said.

In 1960, three years before the bookstore opened, Daniel Talbot, took over the 900-seat theater that had stood on the block since 1933.

Mr. Talbot built the New Yorker into a mecca for aficionados of the films of everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Akira Kurosawa. Young people flocked there, not just to see the movies, but also to seek guidance on personal matters from the wise woman behind the concession stand – Mr. Talbot’s mother-in-law, Bella Tolpen.

In 1973, Mr. Talbot sold the theater to its final owner, the Walter Reade Company.

There is constant disagreement about the past, and the people of the neighborhood argue about whether certain places were wonderful or terrible or simply forgettable. The one thing they all agree on is that the coffee at Benny’s was awful, but that it didn’t matter because everyone loved the loquacious, credit-extending owner, Benny Sarfati from Queens.

After 40 years of serving coffee on Broadway, Mr. Sarfati, 65, still living in Queens, is hoping to retire soon to Fort Lauderdale, near his old friend Murray Bernstein. Broadway, for Some, Is Memory Lane

Esther Marks stayed. This August the 87-year-old widow, a Bronx native, marks her 37th anniversary in her rent-controlled apartment at Broadway and 89th Street. She came there after marrying a Russian immigrant, a tailor named Max Marks, one of the thousands of European immigrants who had settled along upper Broadway.

”I don’t feel sad about the changes anymore,” she said. ”I’m used to it.”

Mrs. Marks still enjoys strolling down Broadway to Woolworth’s at 79th Street and then sitting at the lunch counter. Most of the new restaurants are beyond her budget. She likes to meet her friends at the Argo, a coffee shop at the corner of Broadway and 90th Street, where $8 still buys a complete broiled fish dinner.

Mrs. Marks, who worked her way up in a Wall Street brokerage firm from a stenographer to an auditor, feels a certain solidarity with the hard-working young single women of the neighborhood. ”I married late – in 1946,” she said. ”There weren’t any good men then either.”

One of the newest residents of the two blocks is Catherine Gould, 25, the owner of a real-estate management company. Last month, Ms. Gould moved from a rented apartment she shared on West End Avenue into a one-bedroom condominium at the New West, a 158-unit luxury high-rise that recently went up across from the Argo. One-bedrooms sold for between $190,000 and $260,000.

Ms. Gould’s apartment, about 650 square feet, has marble in the bathroom and a microwave oven in the kitchen. ”For $200,000 I better have a microwave,” said Ms. Gould. She said she loves her new apartment, but holds no illusions about just what it is.

”This shell is exactly what I need,” she said. ”I can afford it, and it’s equity.”

Like many of the city’s affluent newcomers, she envies the people living in older buildings, in spacious, high-ceilinged, rent-controlled apartments five times the size of hers. Some of those people have, in turn, expressed resentment about newcomers like Ms. Gould, whom they view as rich and profligate. The ‘Cinderella’ Of the Upper West Side

There are still people who come to the city for its sense of endless possibility and find what they are looking for in the world that is defined by the blocks between 88th and 90th Streets. A 22-year-old woman named Christina Brainard, who grew up in a one-traffic-light town in Michigan, found love and work there after dropping out of Central Michigan University 18 months ago.

”I was living with six other women,” she said. ”They were all in Florida on spring break. I left them a note -‘Sorry, guys, I had to leave. I went to New York.’ ”

She took the $400 she had to her name and flew to Newark Airport. Two days later, she landed a job as a waitress at Ichabod’s, a new restaurant with pink columns and neon lighting at the corner of 89th Street and Broadway, where the Charles Pharmacy used to be. Not long afterward, the owner of the restaurant asked her out, and the two have been together ever since. Now, Ms. Brainard manages Ichabod’s.

”I learned more here in two months than I ever learned in school,” she said. ”Everyone is so consumed with money. I never thought about money. It’s just a different life.”

While it is also in many ways a different neighborhood now, some of the important things have remained and even flourished. One of them is the tree, a honey locust in full leaf, in front of Harry’s Florist, between 88th and 89th Streets. It is the only tree that has survived on either side of the block, and it is known as Tony’s tree in honor of its self-appointed caretaker, Tony Barbagiannis, the owner of Harry’s Florist.

Mr. Barbagiannis, the immigrant son of a poor Greek farmer, built a low wooden frame around the tree to protect it. He waters it, fertilizes it and guards it against dogs.

”There are a million trees in the park,” said Mr. Barbagiannis’s assistant, Denice Papadatos. ”But this is Tony’s tree. It’s special.”

Mr. Barbagiannis does not know how much longer he will be able to keep the shop his brother, Harry, opened in 1957. His rent went up this year from $830 to $5,000 a month. He is working seven days a week, trying to hold onto his dream – that each of his three children graduates from college. But business has been slow, and competition from the Korean greengrocers is stiff.

Lately, Mr. Barbagiannis has talked of going back to Greece. But he hasn’t given up yet. One day, he stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the Savannah, looming over Broadway. ”That’s what we’re waiting for,” he said.

Soon, the young professionals will be moving into their new co-op apartments. Mr. Barbagiannis hopes they will buy his flowers so he can stay on Broadway another year. NEXT: An appraisal of Broadway’s new architecture.

Correction: August 10, 1987, Monday, Late City Final Edition

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