New York’s Upper West Side Story

Upper West Side New York

33 West 63rd – surviving tenement

New York is constantly full of surprises. Wandering its streets, I was surprised to find a weird, old building suffocated by soaring skyscrapers and modern tower blocks.

The tenement at 33 West 63rd on the Upper West Side stands out like a sore thumb. It’s a low-rise block surrounded by towering concrete giants and the rush of modern life.

Located a stone’s throw from the Lincoln Center’s modern plazas and concert halls, this old building is a throwback to an earlier age when the district was a thriving commercial and residential area.

New York survivor

At five stories high with distinctive exterior fire escapes cascading down its red brick facade, it’s a striking example of a tenement built in the 1890s.

You can still see where its close neighbours were lopped off on both sides, leaving it alone and stranded. Today it’s squashed by office blocks, a car park and tiny flash of open space.

The puzzle is how number 33 got left behind when everything else around it was swept away by modern developments?

I found this lone street survivor completely by accident on an evening stroll across the road from my hotel, The Empire, at 44 West 63rd Street.

Upper West Side New York

The Upper West Side’s towers from the Empire Hotel

Following some detective work on the internet, I discovered this tenement building has a surprisingly rich history.

Its original owner was the eccentric and wealthy, Colonel Jehiel R.Elyachar, who sounds like a character from the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. He was “gnome-like” and “curmudgeonly” according to those who knew him.

Famous for being difficult and penny-pinching, the Colonel made a stand against property developers who wanted to buy his tenement and build an office, shopping and apartment tower in its place during the late 1960s.

Upper West Side New York

Modern 1960s developments – aerial view

He was the only owner on the street who refused to sell his property. After finally agreeing a higher price with the developer, Paul Milstein, the Colonel did a series of unexpected U-turns. The exasperated and angry Milstein was forced to leave the 33 West 63rd tenement standing.

The proposed One Lincoln Plaza development went ahead in the early 1970s, leaving the tenement out-of-kilter with its taller neighbours.

The ‘ battle of skyscraper versus tenement’ had been an ill-tempered draw. There were no winners in this property war.

Colonel Elyachar died in 1989 aged 90, having fallen out with his children over the ownership of his properties.

Today, the building is a monument to stubbornness but also provides a reminder of the neighborhood’s long-lost working class past. It’s a strange architectural ‘holdout’ – the name that New Yorkers give these odd survivors in the Big Apple.

Upper West Side New York

Lost in time – 33 West 63rd – dwarfed by towers

West Side Story

Delve deeper into the history of the area around 33 West 63rd and you’ll discover even more intriguing stories.

The 1960s was a period of rapid change with many old buildings being swept away and replaced by new tower blocks and plazas.

Just to the west of our tenement, a whole neighbourhood was demolished to make way for modern developments between 65th and 59th streets, around Amsterdam Avenue.

This part of the Upper West Side was once one of New York’s biggest Afro-Caribbean communities at San Juan Hill. Dubbed the “worst slum in New York” in the 1940s, it was earmarked for demolition in the late 1950s.

More than 5,000 working class people once crammed into its tight-knit streets of low-rise tenements. Gang fights were common in the neighbourhood. Jazz music thrived in its many back street clubs.

Its tenements were ripped down to make way for the Lincoln Center and the Julliard School, shining monuments to the performing arts, which now attract thousands of visitors and students every year.

Lincoln Center New York

The Lincoln Center

Ironically, back in the early 1960s, the whole Lincoln Center development was postponed so film makers could shoot the authentic street scenes from the movie ‘West Side Story’ (1961).

The opening prologue of the film starts with an aerial view of New York before zooming into the streets and tenement blocks around Amsterdam Avenue where the Sharks and Jets confront each other.

The tenement buildings with their external fire escapes and red brick facades bear a striking resemblance to number 33 West 63rd Street.

West Side Story

West Side Story – Upper West Side street scene. Photo c/o Jack Harris

The West Side Story scenes were filmed specifically between 62nd and 66th streets close to the site of today’s Lincoln Center.

Look out for an area called Lincoln Towers, now a rather characterless development of large apartment towers, just north and west of the Lincoln Center. This is where the dance sequences and playground scene took place although the streets have changed beyond recognition.

Standing outside 33 West 63rd Street, it’s a reminder that we should treasure what’s left of the past. This stubborn survivor provides one of the few glimpses of what the old Upper West Side in this part of town once looked like.

Long may it stand out like a sore thumb. This is the true heart of the Upper West Side’s story.

Watch the opening of West Side Story

Tammy’s Travel Guide – New York’s Upper West Side Story

Number 33 West 63rd is located an easy walk from the Lincoln Center in New York’s Upper West Side. The nearest subway stop is Columbus Circus.

Upper West Side New York

The local neighbourhood

You can’t go inside the building. To capture a glimpse of tenement life, head down to the NY Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.

The Lincoln Centre is across the main road from the tenement building. It’s best seen at night when the fountains play and the crowds swarm around its public spaces.

Lincoln Lincoln CenterCenter

Lincoln Center

Whilst in the Upper West Side, take a walk around the streets around Lincoln Towers where West Side Story was originally shot. It is now largely rebuilt with new apartment blocks but you’ll get a feel for where the movie was filmed.

Read more about the film locations for West Side Story on this excellent blog post 

West Side Story locations

West Side Story film locations

Delve deeper into the history of San Juan Hill on this photographic archive site

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