Sunday, August 25, 2013

Manhattan's Upper East Side: Land of the Invisible Rich and Famous

After last week's excursion to the Lower East Side, I thought it was only fitting that this week I visit that area's most starkly contrasting counterpart: The Upper East Side. If you are not familiar with the layout of  Manhattan I should point out that these two areas do not border each other. There is a lot going on in the space between. Still, the two neighborhoods represent the extremes of the urban experience. The learn more about the Lower East Side, read the previous post. Today we take a bite out of the Upper Crust.

I began my day by visiting the Museum of the City of New York, located at 103rd and 5th Avenue. This is technically East Harlem, but logically, it is still the Upper East Side. To do this I had to take the 6 train, for which I have no great fondness. It is slow and crowded and it runs up Lexington which is always several large blocks over from anywhere than I am actually trying to visit. But I digress.

The museum is fairly new, and there are only a handful of exhibitions, but it was an informative and interesting jaunt. There is an exhibit focusing on the activism in New York City, another focusing on the current state of housing and how the city intends to make room as the city continues to grow. There was a hallway full of paintings of sailboats which I am sure were quite lovely. I have to admit I have very little interest in sailboats so I did not linger long in that hallway other than to stop and make sure there were no hidden pornographic elements in the paintings (there were not).  My favorite exhibit was one dedicated to Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I am a sucker for an impressive cemetery and I am excited to make Green Wood my next excursion. I could write a full review of the museum but I think it's best if you just visit yourself if you get the chance.

I arrived at the museum at 10 AM when it opened, and after about an hour or so of having the place to myself  the various school groups and tourists started trickling in so I decided to take my leave at around 11:15. I had recently read an article about the "wealthiest apartment building in the world" which was on Park Avenue, so I decided to take a stroll down the infamously posh pavilion. *note: Park Avenue is not a pavillion by any exact definition of the word. I am just fond of alliteration.

For those of you who don't know, The Upper East Side is where all of the big money families have been known to dwell when they choose to be in the city. I am still getting a handle on exactly why the money went where it did and when, but I offer now a very brief synopsis of my understanding thus far:

 What is nowManhattan began as a merchant town. This was when the city was only what is now the financial district and the lower sea ports. Once upon a time no one expected to expand much past what is now City Hall. The Island's unique orientation to the ocean and the Hudson river, as well as the timing of its settlement, made it the ideal port for all kinds of importing and exporting, including African slaves. Manhattan became wealthy quickly. This wealth lead to the commissioning of better boats, so the shipbuilding industry also thrived. Eventually the merchants realized it would be most adventageous if Manhattan were also a manufacturing bed. The numerous but small factories provided work for immigrants, who flooded in at a high volume. The rich moved away from lower manhattan (because eeeewwwww. Poor people!). Elevated trains were built and thus Manhattan became America's first city of commuters.

These new modes of transportation also made it easier for women to get around on their own, and midtown became a shopping mecca. I am still looking into how or why, but at some point at least a few very rich people decided to build lavish homes on Park Avenue, and all of their friends followed in step until the Upper East Side possessed such cache that it was where everyone wanted to be. Obviously there is much more to it than that, and the events that lead to the drastically divergent development patterns of the Upper East and Upper west sides is something I intend to spend more time on in the future. For now I hope this demystifies some of the Upper East Side's allure. It's mostly just rich people keeping up with each other.

Park Avenue is not particularly impressive from ground level. Every building that stopped me in my tracks turned out to be a school or a museum or a foreign consulate of some kind. The residential buildings are much less attractive than some of the other pockets of storied looking brownstones in other parts of town. The buildings are large and the windows are small. If you crane your neck you will notice hints of lush, envy inducing rooftop garden patios but from the ground its not much to see.

Park avenue may very well be home to the rich and famous, but the thing about the rich and famous is that they don't do things for themselves and you won't find them on the 86th street 6 train platform. The people I saw were mostly dog walkers, doormen, and for some reason, a lot of slutty teenage girls. I think this has something to do with the show "Gossip Girl" which is set at private high school on the UES. I assume these girls are lurking about hoping to find and snag their very own Chuck Bass. Or these are girls who ATTEND one of the fancy UES private schools and this is how they dress when they're cutting class. Teenagers, man, I just don't know.

I was ready to be impressed. I wanted to bask in opulence and I guess that's just not possible from street level. I'm sure inside any given building there is a world of lavish decadence but there is a doorman in every ornately ornamented doorway ready to shoo away anyone trying to catch a glimpse. Sometimes when they are shooing you away they will also pay a very polite compliment to your bottom, but it is discouraging anyhow. It's a nice place to live but there's no need to visit.

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