The People's Guide is a new series examining New York City's many, many neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. This time around, we welcome Michelle Young, the founder of Untapped Cities and a lifelong resident (until very recently) of Lincoln Square. Here, she explains what her neighborhood within a neighnborhood (the Upper West Side) is all about.
What's your relationship to the neighborhood? As an urban planner, New York City is special because you can see a life-cycle of a neighborhood in just a span of years or a couple decades. I'm trained as a classical cellist, and at eleven years old, I was accepted to the Juilliard School's Pre-College Division. I was born and raised on Long Island, but in 1993 my family bought an apartment at Lincoln Center where we lived on weekends. When we first moved in, there were only a few tall residential buildings between Columbus Circle and 72nd Street. The only place for us teenagers to hang out nearby was the Tower Records on 66th Street.
With some stints outside of New York City for college and my first job, I moved back into the same apartment in 2008 (after two years in Battery Park). I lived there until the end of December 2015, when my husband and I bought a place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Through all of its changes, Lincoln Square will always feel like home to me. It’s the place where I discovered and fell in love with New York City, where I felt like a miniature grown-up with my Juilliard classmates going to restaurants, the movies and performing in concerts.
Tell us something we don't know about Lincoln Square. There are definitely still some remnants of the San Juan Hill neighborhood. My favorite holdout is the Church of the Good Shepard, completed in 1893. It’s now squashed between 3 Lincoln Center apartment building and the Juilliard School, next to the entrance ramp to an underground parking lot. The 16.3 acres around it were all demolished.
My other favorite lesser-known fun fact is that there’s actually a zoning regulation passed in 2012 called the "Special Enhanced Commercial District Upper West Side Neighborhood Retail Streets Text Amendment." It limits the width of retail, and requires two non-residential establishments for every 50 feet of store frontage on Columbus Avenue. This has helped retain a livable scale on the street. When I walk uptown, I always take Columbus Avenue instead of Broadway because there’s just so much more to meet the eye.
What's the difference between Lincoln Square and the Upper West Side, in your mind? Growing up, we also referred to this area as the Upper West Side. In more recent years, when I said I lived on the Upper West Side, newer transplants to New York City would actually correct me! They’d sometimes even insist I lived at "Columbus Circle." All this aside, I would agree that the Lincoln Square area has a distinct personality today in large part due to the redesign of Lincoln Center. Many of the architectural changes made were to better incorporate the superblock into the neighborhood fabric which included moving a driveway underground, adding more ground floor entry into the institutions, and expanding Alice Tully Hall to meet the street on Broadway.
What are some hidden gems in Lincoln Square? One thing Columbus Avenue has unique to other places in the city are these narrow shops that are situated between buildings. I believe these small retail spaces have enable the survival of local shoe repairs, locksmiths, and magazine joints in a neighborhood that otherwise has gone upscale. I also love the David Rubenstein Atrium on 62nd Street, with its living wall and public space. When I was a kid, it was a rock climbing wall.
What's a beloved neighborhood joint? Big Nick’s, open for 51 years, was definitely top on that list, but they couldn’t compete with the rising rents and closed in 2013. Il Violino has been around forever, and I love that we still have a diner, West Side Restaurant, on 69th and Broadway.
What's the best park? It’s hard not to say Central Park, it's just so close by. But there are some pocket parks of note: on the corner of 62nd and Columbus Avenue there’s the Charles B. Benenson Grove, part of Lincoln Center that has over 30 quaking aspen trees, beautifully lit at night amidst black benches. Real estate mogul Charles B. Benenson actually attended every opening performance of Lincoln Center and its many institutions since it opened. The grove was donated by his sons in his honor.
There’s a tiny park with a waterfall that was constructed as a result of zoning bonuses behind the indie movie theater, Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Dante Park, in front of the Empire Hotel, often has rotating art from the Broadway Malls Association, and Richard Tucker Square not only has the farmers market, but also has great live music in the summer.
What is your local transit like? The 1/2/3 lines are frequent and generally reliable, and the expansion of Citi Bike up to Lincoln Center and north has been life-changing. There are also the B/C lines that go north along Central Park, and all the subways available at Columbus Circle. Going crosstown, you can take the M66 or M72 buses.
Inflate the bubble or burst it: What's not-so-swell about your neighborhood? One of the big reasons we just moved to Brooklyn was to get back a sense of neighborhood and community feel. It’s hard to feel it once you’ve got an Apple Store a block a way, masses of people flooding in and out of Century21, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, and a Raymour and Flanigan (though we still can’t figure out who actually shops there!). But Lincoln Center does help to balance out the commercialism.
What's the neighborhood housing stock like? There’s mostly something for everyone—a lot of new condos, older co-ops, but also townhouses on the side streets. It’s hard to buy, though; we get letters from brokers asking if we want to sell all the time. For those that did get a chance to buy here previously, it’s a great investment. There’s a huge demand for apartments in Lincoln Square because of the great schools and cultural amenities but if you want something now, renting is probably easier.
Who lives in the neighborhood? There’s a pretty wide range of ages and types who have made Lincoln Square home, but I loved my building because it was like a creative mecca masquerading as a high-rise condo. A lot of my former Juilliard classmates live in the building, Wynton Marsalis lived here for decades. We’ve had secret concerts with Philip Glass, Timothy Fain (who played violin on the movie Black Swan), and others. I loved hearing the sound of musicians practicing in the hallways. We'd go over to each others' apartments to hear the latest or test out a new creation, whether it was someone working on a new movie soundtrack, writing a hip hop track, or a band playing an acoustic set.
Give us the final word on the Lincoln Square: If you can get an apartment, it’s a great place to live. It has all the convenience, with its development into both a retail and cultural destination, but you can also escape into the quaint townhouse-lined side streets en route to nearby Central Park or walk up and down Columbus Avenue where there are still a lot of boutique shops. Mass transit is reliable, with a lot of lines and connections, and the views from the high rises are incredible.