The rise of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue was due to the deplorable conditions of its waterfronts. In the early / middle parts of the 19th century, the shore areas around the East and Hudson rivers were rat-infested scenes of squalor, contagion and vice frequented by humanity’s most destitute and dissipated individuals…it was also the hub of the city’s industry. Whereas Manhattan Island’s imminent grandeur as a whole left much to be desired, the nearer one came to its waterfronts the more he would observe seemingly endless rows of deplorable slums encased in filth and decay. In those days, waterfront property was a hellish necessity rather than a fashionable commodity.
As one traveled toward the center of Manhattan, away from its rivers, the toppling slums gave way to sections unaffected by the commerce of the time and thus unaffected by the resulting squalor. The social elite and nouveau-riche found attractive stomping grounds, close enough to the harbors that furnished their wealth and far enough away from them to accommodate their luxury, in a relatively new area of the city that would become known as Uptown Manhattan. The rich and pretentious would move into the opulent apartment buildings and townhouses lining Park and Lexington Avenues on the East Side and Sixth and Seventh Avenues on the West Side; this venue of affluent domestication would be symbolized by and centered on Fifth Avenue. For nearly 150 years, this was the mecca for the rich and famous where they “sojourned, socialized, and shopped.”
Now that old order has been upended: much of Fifth Avenue has become a generic parade of retail shops (Abercrombie, Banana Republic, Tiffany), while the shoreline—especially along the West Side—has become a playground for boldfaced names in search of five-star urban charm. It’s a considerable change from the old days, according to Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, whose own restaurant bill is testimony to the shifting tides at Manhattan’s shoreline. At Del Posto, an opulent Italian restaurant a block from the waterfront on Tenth Avenue and 16th Street, he recently spent what seemed like $500 on four plates of spaghetti. “That would be hard to conceive of 25 years ago,” he says.
Indeed, this once beleaguered area–a dichotomy of commerce and destitution, then simply desolation and crime when commerce moved out of the city in the 1960s—is now, as New York Magazine labeled it, a “wannabe Gold Coast.” With the emergence of Hudson River Park attracting the well-heeled with its recreational and cultural attractions and the High Line (a public boardwalk 30 feet above street level), luxury housing is going up on a daily basis. The old and established stomping grounds of Fifth Avenue are giving way to new stomping grounds built on the ruins of commerce and destitution. Indeed, New York City has always coexisted and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with wealth and impoverishment; in fact, its cyclical grandeur is almost Darwinian in scope.