The building is known as the St. Urban, and you can find it in architecture books described as a fine example of Beaux-Arts design. We knew it as the apartment where we grew up, a place with a hallway that felt like it was a half a block long, if not the distance between first and second base at Shea Stadium. Here is where the joys and dramas and most prosaic of life’s routines unfolded: the visits from grandparents; the bar mitzvahs; the opening of report cards; the naps; the writing of books; the teenage fights; the visits home from college; the debates over Nixon’s crimes; the blasting of Mozart and the Rolling Stones; the introduction of new girlfriends and future wives; the hunting for the matzoh at Passover; the grinding of coffee; the celebrations of newly born grandchildren; the brushing of teeth.
For more than a half century, apartment 8E — “’E’ as in Edward,” my mother would say when giving directions — was our common ground. At various points, after my brothers and I were adults, with families of our own, my parents would muse about moving to a smaller place, a one or two bedroom over on West End Avenue or Riverside Drive. “Easier to manage,” my mother would say. They never went anywhere. Nothing could match a late afternoon in their living room, the ceilings 11 feet high, the bay window filled with views of rooftop decks, the sun baking the bricks of the art deco tower a block away, a partial glimpse of Central Park’s reservoir in the distance.
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My parents moved to 285 Central Park West in 1964, a time when many New York families were leaving for the suburbs, fed up with crime, the suffocating subways and dysfunctional public schools. My mother wanted no part of Scarsdale. She would raise her three boys in New York City, even if it meant the possibility of getting mugged or putting up with the occasional blackout or garbage and transit strike.
Back then, Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a rich blend of blue collar and professional, black, white and Latino, with elegant prewar apartment houses along the avenues and gracious brownstones and low- and middle-income towers in between. Along with the bodegas, butcher shops, hardware stores and dive bars, there was Barney Greengrass on Amsterdam Avenue, the self-proclaimed “Sturgeon King,” a legendary restaurant that didn’t appear to have redecorated since opening in 1908. There was the New Yorker bookshop on Broadway, where a poster of Humphrey Bogart greeted you at the entrance. Across the street was Party Cake, where the lemon meringue pies in the display case looked like heaven. A bit uptown, a Chinese restaurant known as Chun-Cha Fu was where you learned by overhearing the neighboring chatter that your family wasn’t the only one that seemed insane. At 2 a.m. on any night, you could walk into the Pick-N-Pay on 87th Street and get on line with, say, a Columbia professor, a New York Knick and a hooker.
This was utopia.
As the decades passed and the value of real estate approached the stratosphere, many of those old businesses faded, proving again and again that New York is a place you can miss even while standing in the middle of it. At my parents’ building, new marble was added to the lobby; the elevator, where we had used our keys to carve our initials in the wood, was renovated and a security camera was added. Movie stars and news anchors and hedge fund kings bought up apartments, bringing with them an encampment of black SUVs waiting outside.
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Along the way, we still knew the doormen and handymen, a cast of characters we greeted as “Russ” and “George” and “Soto,” their deadpan in place whether they were sorting the mail or gazing up at a resident whose eccentric predilections included strolling out on the ledge outside his fourth-floor bedroom.
Our parents’ apartment remained our same cluttered nest, the place where we gathered as a family, 20 of us around the dining room table, sometimes more, as grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles and friends joined. Even well into middle age, my brothers and I could stand in the rooms where we had lived as youngsters. Everything had been redecorated, of course. But the rooms still felt the same, somehow unchanging, up until this year, after both of our parents passed away and it came time for us to sell the apartment and give up our footprint in a neighborhood that had defined us for so long. Now it would be someone else’s turn to say, “See you at mom and dad’s.”
Until the end, there was still Formica in the kitchen, and the same kitchen table, the one where my brother and I had stood 50 years earlier, him maybe 13, and me 7 or 8. It was around 7 p.m. on a Sunday, and a bag of pretzels was spilled before us. We were munching away, almost hypnotically.
“Don’t ever forget this moment,” my brother said, a directive I would hold on to because this is where it all began for us, the history and lore that we take with us wherever we go.