Neighborhood Tour: All Aboard The Upper East Side And 2nd Ave Subway
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The first time the 2nd Avenue Subway was pitched to New York City, women couldn’t vote. The line has famously been under consideration since 1919, one of the most disruptive—and disrupted—building projects in NYC history.
Planned for installation from 125th Street down to Brooklyn, the 2nd Avenue Subway is finally set to open in three separate stages, with the first leg, from 96th to 63rd streets, opening in December. Digging to make way for construction began in the '70s; not until 2007 was the money finally budgeted for it.
These streets are soaked in American history. Right on 63rd Street and 3rd Avenue is where American spy Nathan Hale uttered his famous last words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country," just before the British hanged him. Furthermore, the residential neighborhoods on the 70s blocks along 2nd Avenue are one of several places on the island where the Lenape tribe lived for thousands of years before colonial settlement.
The Upper East Side—particularly along 2nd Avenue—is the primary alternative to affordability, says Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli (right, with New York Historical Tours co-founder Kevin Draper).
The playground of Carrie Bradshaw and Blair Waldorf never truly lost its Old World luster; now boosted by the prospect of the 2nd Avenue Subway grand opening, the district promises to shine brilliantly once again.
Kevin recalls his young adult years here in the early ‘90s as surrounded by yuppies, hipsters, and bars upon bars. In turn, the present day has witnessed an explosion of young families on quiet, tree-adorned streets, especially as more schools have sprung up in the area and become less crowded.
“There is concern over the rents rising. However, it's important to remember that they were actually rather low for a really long time,” Adelaide points out. “The supply of housing and retail is now increasing. Demand needs to rise in order to absorb new inventory. We don't expect rents to climb to astronomical levels in the immediate future, but we do expect it to stay strong and robust.”
“A lot of people don’t realize how much culture there is in this area,” Kevin says.
Take, for example, the Bohemian National Hall on 73rd Street, built in the 1880s as a central hub for a neighborhood primarily populated by a noisy mix of German, Irish, Czech, Polish and Hungarian immigrants. To this day, the hall hosts birthday parties and community-oriented events, lending a small-town aura to at least one part of the Big Apple.
The East Side’s beloved restaurant and beer garden—the Heidelberg at 1648 2nd Ave—traces its heritage back to German Yorkville immigrants, and further serves as an example of a family-owned business whose owners were able to keep their building by selling the air rights. The restaurant’s beautiful old architecture now stands in sharp, glorious contrast to the modern, steel building hovering right over it.
“It’s a great New York story,” Kevin says. “Everybody wins.”
Further down, at 1568 2nd Ave is New York’s oldest stand-up comedy club, the Comic Strip Live. A few little-known comics—Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres—got their starts performing here.
The proliferation of retail along the avenue plays an integral role in maintaining is relative affordability while driving value. The building at 306 East 81st St (above)—with an asking price of $7M—is a prime example of this phenomenon, with one apartment on each of its three floors and a basement garage next to ground-floor retail.
The area is the epitome of mom-and-pop shopping; the majority of local stores are not national chains. Less than a block away, we find a family-owned laundromat and groceries in addition to a number of bakeries, eateries and banks.
As foot traffic increases once the 2nd Avenue line makes its debut—and Cornell Tech’s 10 new campus building projects up-and-coming on Roosevelt Island open—Adelaide predicts the Upper East Side will blossom as never before.
You won’t find Marvel superheroes like Hell’s Kitchen’s Daredevil or Harlem’s Luke Cage fighting crime here—and you wouldn’t find their ilk at any point in the community’s storied past. A consistent flow of working-class, immigrant families kept the Upper East Side one of the more “sterile” pockets of Manhattan.
Despite skyrocketing rents, Millennial professionals and young families have flocked downtown in the decades since Kevin’s post-college years, in search of a grit and character most of them would be surprised to learn exists right here in one of the city’s oldest historic districts.
Crazy price increases are far from uncommon. Kevin took us down to 1854 2nd Ave on the corner of 96th, where Adelaide sold the building for just under $900/SF in 2013.
"It was a nail-biter," she remembers, as construction had just begun on the subway. The seller had signed a lease with a national retailer…who wouldn't open until construction was complete. Fast-forward to 2016, and the business is alive and well; in the year since, the owner purchased an adjacent property before reselling the entire package to a developer.
The 2nd Avenue Subway is set to open in just a few weeks. Tracks are fully functional and trains have successfully completed several tests. Once the escalators are installed and the fire and safety tests passed, the line will relieve a great deal of congestion from the 4/5/6 lines one of the busiest public transit lines in the world, with more than 1 million passengers every day.
And commuting will become so much easier for the residents inhabiting 1,278 apartment units in the historic Ruppert Yorkville Towers on 96th and 3rd, named after the brewing magnate who owned the New York Yankees from 1915 to 1939, and built Yankee Stadium, once the 2nd Avenue Subway roars to life.
“What’s the next hot neighborhood in New York City?" Adelaide says. "We’re predicting this is it."
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