According to Dava Schub, the Upper West Side of Manhattan “is a neighborhood full of baby carriages, dogs, families of two and three and five.”
Schub should know: as associate executive director for programming at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, she sees 2,000 locals of all ages stream daily in and out of the building at Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street.
An awful lot of them are members of young families. At a recent children’s event, Schub’s team anticipated 20 youngsters; 70 showed up. The proportion of young children among Manhattan residents has been mushrooming for years — and the Upper West Side, with its unparalleled institutional and neighborhood resources, is the top choice for many Jewish families.
All that demand explains why, while much of the region lingers in the real-estate doldrums, glittering new buildings are sprouting like so many dandelions alongside the neighborhood’s historic brownstones and elegant prewar buildings.
The JCC’s newest patrons move into buildings like the Harrison, a new condominium with prewar-style detailing on 76th Street; Ariel West, a soaring glass tower on West 99th Street (with an East Side twin), further north than the traditional prestige buildings; and Linden78, a high-rise on the eponymous street just off Broadway. These new buildings are typically large, glass-clad and laden with amenities like concierge service, children’s playrooms, parking garages and gyms.
And the entire West Side is abuzz about the neighborhood’s first Trader Joe’s, which is set to open soon at The Corner, a building located at the intersection of 72nd Street and Broadway.
“There’s a hunger that’s being filled — families that are now having that opportunity to stay in the neighborhood with the space and resources they need,” said Schub.
One family, she said, bought into the Harrison before it was built, citing its proximity to the JCC and Jewish life. Indeed, Schub and her colleagues even meet with local developers, integrating new residents before they have even unpacked. “As they come into the neighborhood, they connect to each other and to the Jewish community here,” she said. One consequence has been a shift in programming to meet the burgeoning demand for family-oriented services: a darkroom was regretfully shuttered to make way for more children’s and special-education offerings.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Upper West Side has a large Jewish elderly population, many of whom have chosen to age in place rather than retire elsewhere. Organizations like DOROT, based on West 85th Street, offer a range of services that address Jewish and other seniors’ spiritual, social and professional needs locally.
Founded in 1976 by concerned Columbia graduate students, DOROT — “generations” in Hebrew — started with holiday package deliveries and “friendly visiting,” in which volunteers drop in and chat with isolated, homebound seniors. Over the decades, the organization has expanded to become an essential community resource offering kosher meal deliveries, shopping escorts, vaccine and blood pressure clinics, university courses over the phone, concerts and homelessness prevention and other programs that meet the needs of local seniors.
With an ever-growing Jewish presence, area shuls are thriving. Aside from sheer quantity, the Upper West Side is noted for the variety and uniqueness of its Jewish institutions.
Just off West End Avenue, for instance, the 181-year-old congregation Ansche Chesed has a tradition of multiple services. “Every Shabbat, we have a children’s service and three adult minyans,” said Executive Director Josh Hanft, who notes that membership is up about 10 percent over seven years.
In keeping with the shul’s open Conservative orientation, the minyanim “are all egalitarian, all mostly Hebrew — but they have different feels.” During the summer, an outdoor literary reading series, “Scribbler on the Roof,” reflects the neighborhood’s intellectual tradition, nourished by the presence of Columbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, the Manhattan School of Music Mannes College – The New School for Music, and the Bank Street College of Education.
The diversity of local worship is exemplified by the expanding Lincoln Square Synagogue, with more than 700 families; Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a major Reform temple; Chabad of the Upper West Side at 92nd Street; Congregation Kehilath Jacob/The Carlebach Shul, famous for its music-infused Chasidic approach; Congregation Ohab Zedek on 95th Street; Congregation Habonim, near Lincoln Center; the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, with an influential tradition of social action; and the B’nai Jeshurun, which — like its neighbor Ansche Chesed — dates to the early 19th century and today draws crowds to its festive services and social events.
As the plethora of strollers and pink backpacks would indicate, the neighborhood’s educational options are a huge draw, attracting students from the area and beyond. Thriving day schools include the pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School, the Modern Orthodox Manhattan Day School and Beit Rabban Day School, and the Agudah-style Yeshiva Ketana.
Retail on the Upper West Side continues to evolve, with an ever-expanding array of Jewish-oriented businesses. Broadway, especially further south, specializes in major chain stores like Barnes & Noble, Urban Outfitters and Pottery Barn, while Columbus Avenue in the 70s and 80s features upscale boutiques and artisanal cafés. West Side Judaica and the jeweler Design by Tova are just some of the Jewish businesses that lend a distinctive local vibe.
Kosher eaters find abundant shopping, catering and restaurant options. “Every year there seem to be more and more kosher places,” noted Haft. Supersol and Kosher Marketplace are the major kosher supermarkets, while specialty delis like Eretz Kosher Foods, known for its schnitzel, are bustling after work. Popular eateries include Renana’s Middle Eastern Cuisine and Mike’s Bistro, a seasonally inspired glatt kosher restaurant.
In keeping with the northward psychological expansion of the Upper West Side — which once was considered to end around 96th Street, but now blends seamlessly into Morningside Heights in the 100s — more and more Jewish families and businesses are moving uptown, like Café Roma, newly located at 101st and Amsterdam.
Rabbi Bill Plevan, who leads the traditional egalitarian Conservative temple Shaare Zedek, notes that the neighborhood’s popularity and expansion have a downside. “As the neighborhood is getting nicer and pricier, it’s good for quality of life, but it also squeezes people out,” said Plevan, who has lived here for 14 years. “What impact does that have on the institutions, on the young people?”
Plevan pointed out that the Upper West Side’s diverse and intellectually engaged population has traditionally been one of its chief attractions. “You have a mix of longtime residents and young people who are affiliated with all the educational institutions,” he said. “That really energizes and provides spiritual and intellectual resources.”
Despite the glittery new towers and the eye-popping condo prices, however, Plevan and others say the Upper West Side’s age-old charms remain intact. These include symphonies and operas at Lincoln Center, dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History, and sunsets over the Hudson River.
And as generations of Upper West Siders can attest, perhaps no condo amenity can equal the simple pleasure of having Central Park at your doorstep — a sprawling, verdant paradise that’s always free.
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