Community Dissonance: From Jackson Heights to the UES

| 22 Jun 2022 | 11:27

My wife and I recently moved from Jackson Heights to the Upper East Side for several reasons: being within walking distance to children/grandchildren; convenience to doctors; proximity to institutions we love; closeness to Central Park. We also expected there would be some dissonance given the differences in what community might mean. Our familiarity with this part of town goes back decades, beginning with my wife’s Ph.D. years at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, many visits to the long-departed G&M Bakery and decades of browsing at The Corner Bookstore.

This is my first attempt to reconcile how these two communities actually exist for us, and how they differ in the same city. Some impressions:

Coins: Coin machines allow you to deposit your collection into a slot which tallies the total, deducts a “commission,” and prints out a receipt you can then use in the store to buy food. On the Upper East Side, there are no coin machines in the supermarkets, certainly not in the more elite stores and absent even in the major chains. In Jackson Heights, they are ubiquitous. Where do all the coins go on the UES? Piggy banks kept by children, buckets hidden in closets, waiting to be put in rolls and taken to the banks? Do folks just not use actual money anymore so there are no coins, replaced by credit cards and apps? I now fill my pockets with coins for my grandchildren to throw into museum or park fountains. I’ve been told one of the banks has a coin deposit machine, but I must have checked in the wrong branches.

Streets: 34th Avenue in JH is one of the more successful examples of a long daytime street closure during COVID pandemic. The avenue has been filled with people of all ages, walking, playing, socializing. There are occasional carts selling food, many informal dance and exercise groups, all enhanced by the planted mall which runs up the center of the street. The mall is maintained by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a nonprofit which maintains and improves open spaces throughout the community.

I am now reminded of that community effort by the beautiful Park Avenue Mall, filled with tulips and more substantial plantings. I just returned from participating in the Park Avenue Tulip Dig, a unique example of community engagement ... and sharing. My trowel broke apart before I could fill my bag with bulbs from north and south of 86th Street. The tulips on Park Avenue are incredible. I’m curious as to who picks the palette distribution.

Dogs: On the UES, designer dogs of all shapes, sizes, and colors, are out for strolls on the wide sidewalks, many in small clusters led by professional dog walkers. Most of these dogs are from breeders, I would guess, though a few folks have told me quite proudly that their pets are mixed breeds and/or rescue dogs. In JH, almost every dog you see is some part pit bull, with a shelter pedigree, a testament to the active social life that pit bulls must enjoy. There are few if any dog walkers.

Parking: Moving into Manhattan, I had my son-in-law track down an almost affordable garage where I could store my car, used infrequently to get out of town. He found one, just a 15-minute walk away, which cost slightly more than double what I paid in JH. As with most Manhattan lots, you are supposed to call 24 hours ahead if you want to keep the attendants on your side. Having a reserved spot where you park and pick up yourself adds a few hundred to the monthly charge. At best, I don’t have to worry about losing my keys.

Transportation: The crosstown 86th Street bus is a marvel! The bus arrives on time, the drivers are appropriately aggressive while also being quite generous in waiting for riders who rush to get their tickets from the machines. Almost everyone wears a mask. I use the bus frequently to take my grandchildren to their homes after school, or to save me a walk with heavy shopping bags from the local markets. I once tried to take a bus down Fifth Avenue or up Madison Avenue, but walking is much quicker.

Buildings: We are also becoming connoisseurs of lobbies, each unique, some quite amazing. I was almost looking forward to the recent strike threat to see how we all would survive without doormen. Note: This is my first experience having doormen, a significant qualitative difference in our lifestyle, especially regarding no more lost packages.

Food shopping: My wife’s chili recipe calls for one can of beer, and the meal includes homemade guacamole. I tried three stores and two sidewalk stands on the UES and could not find a ripe avocado. We finally paid $5 for an almost ripe avocado at a Madison Avenue store which will go unnamed. In JH, the local ethnic population demands ripe avocados so they are ubiquitous (never more than a dollar fifty). Frequently, they are too ripe. I also had trouble buying a single bottle of beer, so again paid a small fortune for one special brand. Interesting that food carts only carry Idaho potatoes, which I believe no one actually eats. Red potatoes? Yukon Golds?

I am reading as much as I can on the history of homes/mansions and apartment buildings between Fifth Ave and Lexington Avenue, from the East 60’s through the 90’s. We moved from a beautiful historic district to a quite different set of historic districts, the topic for a different article.