Upper West Side Story

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For my landscape analysis, I chose to focus on my immediate home landscape – the blocks surrounding my apartment on the Upper West Side (75th and Columbus Avenue). The area I analysed were the blocks from 74th to 77th Street, from Amsterdam Avenue to Columbus Avenue. In this region, the blocks on the avenues are populated with food, clothing, and repair shops, restaurants, banks, and gyms. The side streets are almost entirely residential (with the exception of a couple playgrounds on 77th), lined with a few apartment buildings (which are not skyscrapers because my neighborhood is landmarked) and mostly brownstone townhouses. When I explored this landscape, a few axioms (from Lewis’ “Axioms for Reading the Landscape”) stood out to me as pertinent ways of reading the landscape. I will focus on “The Axiom of Landscape as Clue to Culture” and “The Corollary of Diffusion.”

On the western block of 77th Street on Amsterdam Avenue, there is a string of establishments that I would deem as “health conscious/focused”: an Equinox gym (with a small Juice Press boutique inside), a Modell’s Sporting Goods, a Juice Press Store, a Soulcycle, and a Pure Yoga. Across the street, there is a Chop’t salad store and two blocks down, on 75th and Amsterdam, there is a Sweetgreen salad store, which is usually teeming with people. I frequent these locations often; my usual routine being to go from taking a class at SoulCycle to grabbing a juice at Juice Press and then a salad at Sweetgreen. I have often noticed the strategic convenience of placing these establishments next to each other and wondered if it happened naturally (one health focused store was established and then others followed, seeing it as a business opportunity) or if it was a product of urban planning. In viewing this piece of landscape through the axiom of “Landscape as Clue to Culture,” I can see that our culture has a focus – dare I say, obsession – with health. It is interesting to me that our culture does not pursue this in a natural way – for instance, by leaving those blocks as open green space for humans to run around in – but instead by installing concrete establishments where we can exercise indoors, isolated from our natural environment, maybe by running while watching TV or listening to music on our smartphones. We buy salads and juices that, while hopefully ethically and locally sourced, similarly disconnect us from our natural environments and the farms from which they come. I think the pristine and often luxurious nature of these establishments (particularly SoulCycle and Equinox) also reveal something about our culture. It can be a symbol of wealth or status to frequent these gyms, to be able to drop thousands of dollars on a “healthy lifestyle,” maybe including a personal trainer and clean eating plan. Whenever I go into Soulcycle, I see many adult women, often mothers, with Cartier bracelets and expensive clothing. Not everyone can afford to pay to work out in these places or buy organic food. The abundance of these establishments in my landscape speaks to the culture and the needs of the residents of the Upper West Side. There is a focus on health independent of natural surroundings and a reality that only people of a certain socioeconomic class have access to these resources.

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Along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, I noticed another trend: many restaurants with food from other cultures and places, that were designed in the style of those cultures. In this aspect of the landscape, I saw “The Corollary of Diffusion.” One pertinent example is a relatively new restaurant called “Playa Betty’s” which advertises “California Style Beach Food.” Painted white and decorated with symbols of palm trees, a blue and white striped cabana-esque overhang, and a neon wave design, the restaurant is meant to imitate the beach shacks of California. First of all, I find this a bit ironic, because of New York City’s infamous rivalry with California, but clearly there is something about California that appeals to New Yorkers and has led to the establishment of this restaurant. This feature of the landscape could also be viewed through the “Corollary of Convergence,” the idea that New York and California are beginning to come together in terms of culture, as New York borrows pieces of California’s culture for its own landscape. I think this has to do with globalization and increased ability to travel, which is leading to convergence of cultures of places on different sides of the county.

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I also noticed restaurants with that serve cuisines from a number of foreign countries (e.g. Saffron, an Indian restaurant, and Grand Sichuan, a Chinese restaurant). This is not surprising to me because New York is a diverse city with immigrant populations who bring their own culture to the city. The “Corollary of Diffusion” was evident to me in the signs I saw outside Pappardella, an Italian restaurant on 75th and Columbus. Most of the posters are written in Italian and have an antique look that make you feel as if you are looking at them in a quaint, Italian village. They highlight Italian food products and are made to imitate the look of Italy.

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I noticed a sign from a framing store on Amsterdam, named “Paris,” that was made to look as if it were Parisian, and a hole-in-the-wall tailoring shop that boasted a tailor from Italy (who is presumably an immigrant). I think the “Corollary of Diffusion” speaks to how the emergence of globalization has allowed people to borrow aspects from other cultures and bring them to the landscape of where we live.

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One thought on “Upper West Side Story

  1. You elegantly and effectively capture the axioms of “culture” and “convergence” in your landscape of the Upper West Side. I wonder too about the location of the Sweet Greens, Juice Press, and Soul Cycle. Is it urban planning from the city perspective? — likely not. But, it does seem likely that the owners of the buildings may be the same or are working with the same developer. Would be interesting to do a NYTimes search to see what you can find!

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