The bench on the island in the middle of Broadway and 90th Street has a dedication plaque, like every other bench on every other island. But the one I’m sitting on (actually it’s the one adjacent to me, because a homeless person is occupying the one I’m talking about, which is not uncommon on these islands), is dedicated to Artie Cutler, my dad’s late business partner who passed away tragically young. If it wasn’t for Artie and his wife, Alice, my dad would have never been able to open up his Jewish deli. Artie, like my dad today, was a restaurateur: a contributor to the “social drama” and entertainment of the Upper West Side. Two of Artie’s restaurants are within my gaze currently, if I turn my head around. Another, Carmine’s, is in front of me, and my family proudly operates it today. The social drama of local business was what gave the Upper West Side its culturally-rich flavor in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Our deli opened in October of 1999, two months before I was born. That deli, in true Upper West Side small business fashion, is what sewed us into the neighborhood. However, that deli, in the spirit of the current economic climate of the Upper West Side, is no longer open. But still, on this public bench, Artie remains physically attached to the neighborhood. It was a place he sat working, just as I am now. The Upper West Side, for me, is defined by me, by my family, our friends, our neighbors, our stores, and our benches.
The islands themselves serve many purposes. They house traffic lights and signs, and disguise the subway grates in the middle of the streets that cars should not really be driving over. Interestingly, in recent years, the city has began placing benches before the grate starts instead of where it ends, so that pedestrians don’t have to walk over them. As every Upper West Side child has been told, you are never to walk over these grates because you will fall in (you walk over them anyway, and most people opt not to sit on the new, backless benches). The islands also divide Broadway into two halves, one where cars can drive uptown and the other, downtown. They aid pedestrians trying to cross the busy street. I might add that there are many two-way avenues on the Upper West Side that do not possess islands, but the foot-traffic is particularly heavy on Broadway.
Broadway for Upper West Siders is not the home of theater; it is our Main Street. The islands have been cultivated to decorate this Main Street that so many of us walk on each day. 90th and Broadway is located in the upper-middle of a gradient of decoration. It has some shrubs and trees, but definitely no tulips (those can only be found on the Upper East Side’s Park Avenue islands). The decoration is more ornate downtown. For instance, the 79th Street island has a grand sculpture that is often swapped for more grand one. However, the decoration has been sweeping upward at a rapid rate, and I have definitely seen the islands near my house change in my lifetime (see: benches before the grate begins). The islands above 90th Street are less maintained and controlled.
The sister of the island is the sidewalk. I know my way around the Upper West Side so well that most of my time walking on the sidewalk is, unfortunately, spent staring at my feet. If you stare at your feet, you will find the sidewalk is dotted with hundreds of raised black, dirty ovals. The island floor is covered in these as well. I used to inquire about these as a child, and I was told they were gum. I have never seen anyone spit out their gum on the sidewalk, nor do I see how it’s possible that Upper West Siders could possibly chew that much gum, but I do not have a better answer. The gum blends into the sidewalk as if it were part of the pavement, and for me it is a detail that is quintessentially Broadway.
Broadway and its islands are made of this gum, of its residential side streets, its lively commerce, and its pedestrians like me. These details make up the avenue, which makes up the neighborhood. All of the Upper West Side that I know and was raised in is visible from this bench.