Thanks to the city's preservation efforts, most of the buildings lining Columbus Avenue from 67th up to 82nd Streets are first-generation developments. These designated landmarks, with their original storefronts intact, elicit memories of the quaint, little old New York of more than a century ago. Yet, even in this carefully tended historic district, only a fraction of the Upper West Side's rich history is preserved.
"I was shocked to discover just how much history there was," says Peter Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide, who moved to the Upper West Side as a teenager in 1957. "You look at the streets around you and generally assume that things are pretty much as they have always been."
Suzanne Wasserman, the associate director for the Gotham Center for New York History, concurs. "It's hard for people to conjure up an image of the Upper West Side when it was really wild," she says. "People tend not to connect names of places to events - like the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park. I don't think people really have a mental picture of the fact that it was a sheep's meadow."
Wasserman has faith, however, that New York, as a "city of newcomers," is filled with residents who would like to learn more about their city's history. Who were the first landowners on the Upper West Side? What was the historical significance of the Battle of Harlem Heights? Why did the region lag behind as downtown became the world capital of culture and industry, and the Upper East Side became the center of residential life? How did the Dakota apartment building get its name?
These questions unearth the layers of history upon which the handsome old homes of the Upper West Side were built. New York City's uptown expansion engulfed wooded forests, rocky hills, valleys, swamps and streams, until every sign of the land's original topography was built on, filled in, paved over, or dynamited into oblivion.