For a long while preservationists kept their gaze mostly west of Lexington Avenue, but with development pressures rocking Second Avenue, they are making up for lost time. Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, a steward of Upper East Side preservation for over thirty years, is moving its mission to Yorkville.
The Upper East Side historic districts, stretching along Fifth Avenue from 59th Street to 78th Street and as far east as Third Avenue at some points, include some of New York City’s largest landmark districts. But for decades, more modest neighborhoods like Yorkville endured rampant development that shuttered mom and pops and permanently changed neighborhoods.
“86th street used to be all small businesses and now they’re all gone. Everything is always up for grabs”
says Kent Barwick, one of the founding board members of Friends, in a short film the group made about the Upper East Side. Well, almost everything. Historic preservation groups have protected the “Gold Coast” neighborhoods bordering Central Park for years, and that’s where Friends staked their original mission. But Yorkville doesn’t have the same ballasts, and hasn’t for a long time. Friends of the Upper East Side is hoping to change that.
Sense of Place
In 2015, the Friends came out with an aspirational strategy for the Upper East Side, A Framework for the Five Neighborhoods. The study spans Lenox Hill, Yorkville, East Harlem, Carnegie Hill, and the Upper East Side, and focuses on those blocks most vulnerable to out-of-scale development. The East Side’s green spaces, small businesses, historic buildings, affordability – these are what preservationists hope to shield from behemoth development. What matters is the sense of place that disappears with every new mega-tower and block-long chain store. It’s no coincidence that enjoying Yorkville is all about keeping to the side streets. “It’s the feeling you get when you walk up and down your street,” says Rachel Levy, Executive Director at Friends. “We are looking to Yorkville as the next frontier for preservation efforts.”
Yorkville, a Historic Junction
Yorkville began as a junction along the Boston Post Road, the historic postal route between New York City and Boston. There may only be remnants left, but the neighborhood originally bustled with working-class German, Hungarian and Czech immigrants.
Yorkville’s buildings exude this heritage. In a sweeping five-year study of Yorkville, Friends of the Upper East Side investigated the everyday places where people and families lived – nothing to look twice at then and now. These were neighborhood institutions like churches and tenement buildings built to serve the people who lived there. You can still see this history memorialized in places like Zion-St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 84th Street, which served the local German community. But a lot more places are gone. When what’s up for grabs isn’t glamorous, it is easy for neighborhoods to disappear unnoticed.
Today the saga continues, especially with the opening of the Second Avenue subway. In the midst of these issues, Friends has been building their advocacy strategy from their original “Framework.” And this time around, architectural legacy will take a back seat to the everyday lives of people in the community, who lament overcrowding on city buses, the impossible demand for school seats, and rising rents.
“This intensive community planning work is a step beyond what we have done historically”
says Levy, who works closely with Community Board 8 on such local issues. But it is difficult to say which methods are tried and true in protecting neighborhoods like Yorkville. Friends is taking cues from New York’s ‘other side’, where strategies as narrowly focused as limiting storefronts widths have proven effective. “Our strategy is constantly evolving and we are looking at what is possible,” Levy says.
Friends of the Upper East Side has always looked to be a voice for neighborhoods at risk of losing out, and now their cultural capital includes Yorkville. The group recently received a private grant to continue researching culturally significant buildings and the immigrant history of Yorkville.
For locals like Levy, coming on two years living there, there is the history and then there’s the everyday living. “It’s been great to know Yorkville in such a personal way,” Levy says. “There are so many people walking on Second Avenue, and our neighborhood is on the stage for all to see.”
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