The diverse and densely populated Upper East Side of Manhattan is defined as the area between 59th Street, 96th Street, Central Park and the East River. Once known as the ‘Silk Stocking District’, it boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the United States and, given the population density and high per capita income, is often touted as the home of our country’s greatest concentration of individual wealth.
As of the 2000 census, there were 207,543 people residing in the Upper East Side. Although some of the most famous of New York’s celebrities and historical upper-class families—Astors, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Whitneys, Dukes, to name a few— have made residences on the Upper East Side, New Yorkers from a wide variety of races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic profiles have found their homes here.
Before the arrival of Europeans to New York City, the Upper East Side was home to Native American fishing camps along the East River bluffs. As immigrants arrived on Manhattan’s shores, most inhabitants remained in lower Manhattan, and the Upper East Side existed as rural farmland and market gardens for many years.
This began to change in 1837, when the New York and Harlem Railroad began to increase commercial development around its one station in the neighborhood, at 86th Street. This hub of new growth would eventually become the heart of German Yorkville, which extended east past Lexington Avenue and became a suburb of middle-class Germans, many of whom worked in nearby piano factories, stables, and breweries. Amidst the growing commercialization of the mid-19th century, much of the remaining farmland was subdivided, the exceptions being the 150 acres of Jones’ Wood, stretching from 66th to 76th Streets and from the Old Post Road (Third Avenue) to the river, and the stretch of farmland inherited by James Lenox, now present-day Lenox Hill.
During the second half of the 19th century, vast numbers of foreign immigrants and other American migrants flooded New York City, causing a population boom that pushed speculative development beyond the settled downtown districts of the time. This development was temporarily curbed by the Panic of 1873, a severe economic depression that lasted for about six years and sent uptown land prices plummeting. But by the start of the 1880s, financial recovery and the opening of newly built elevated railroads on Second and Third Avenues allowed what is now the Upper East Side to regain its status as a prime location for speculative residential real estate investment and development.
The early 1890s saw almost the entire area, with the exception of pricey lots along Fifth Avenue, built up with residences for those commuting to the bustling commercial areas downtown. The western sections of the area had newly constructed brick or stone row houses in the Neo-Grec, Queen Anne or Romanesque Revival styles that were built for sale to the middle-class. These row houses were often purchased by business and professional people, many of whom were successful immigrants with German, German-Jewish or Irish heritage. A number of these originial structures remain today, marking the rich architectural tradition of this part of the City. Farther east, closer to the noise and grit of the new elevated trains, larger tenements were constructed to accommodate the increasing numbers of working class people.
Prior to the 1890s, Fifth Avenue north of 59th Street was not considered to be a prestigious neighborhood, with the wealthiest and most affluent people living south of 59th Street in mansions and row houses near Fifth Avenue. By the mid-1890s, however, the wealthy class began to dip its toe in the water of speculating in real estate and by 1915 large palatial residences were erected on Fifth Avenue all the way up to 96th Street.
As development expanded northward along 59th street in the early 20th century, a substantial number of the row houses on neighboring streets were demolished and replaced by newer, more elegant residences. At the same time, New York Central’s Railroad tracks along Park Avenue were electrified and covered, which eliminated many nuisance conditions and restored land values. The wide Park Avenue boulevard was transformed into a prime location and both real estate developers and wealthy individuals began to establish new residences. To serve the needs of the wealthy new inhabitants of these residences, increasing numbers of English, Swedish and Norwegian descendants came to the neighborhood to take posts as servants. Additionally, and new schools, churches, synagogues, social clubs, museums and fashionable shops sprung up in the area. Rooted in this deep history, many of these institutions have risen to international prominence in modern times, making the Upper East Side a premiere destination for the best private schools, foremost museum collections, and latest fashions.
With the escalation of land values escalated and the introduction of the income tax in 1913, major mansion and townhouse construction came to a near standstill by about 1915. The limited supply of residences and land during this time contributed to establishing the Upper East Side’s reputation as an elite residential neighborhood rendered too expensive for all but the country’s wealthiest individuals.
Demand for property on the Upper East Side remained steady through the early 20th Century and, although the most affluent families continued to pursue construction and renovation of single-family residences along the lesser-developed eastern blocks toward the river, it was during this time that luxury apartment buildings began to appear on the Upper East Side to fulfill the needs of larger numbers of people who were eager to move to area. This trend boomed for the next two decades, slowed only by the devastation of the Great Depression and World War II.
The next pivotal development came in 1934, with the completion of the East River Drive extension, designed by Robert Moses, creating an arterial street-level highway running from 125th Street to 92nd Street. As with other major historical transportation projects in the area, increased accessibility and mobility sparked much needed commerce. The highway underwent regular reconstruction projects from 1948 to 1966, resulting in the modern day FDR Drive, named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Robert Moses was also responsible for another Upper East Side milestone in 1942, when he convinced beloved New York City Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia to appropriate Gracie Mansion, the last remaining suburban villa overlooking the East River, as a mayoral residence. Gracie Mansion continues to hold the honor of being the official mayoral residence of New York City. In fact, well-enforced restrictions prevent the house from being used for anything other than official city business, and only visiting public officials and the Mayor's family may reside with the Mayor at the mansion, even for an overnight stay. Although Mayor Bloomberg does not currently live in Gracie Mansion, it has been home to many prominent figures in New York and American history.
Over the years, the Upper East Side has continued to flourish as a center of commerce and a destination for those seeking the very best that Manhattan has to offer. Visitors will find world-class restaurants, flagship shopping, the finest luxury hotels, and internationally renowned museums and attractions. Those seeking a home on the Upper East Side will benefit from their choice of exclusive clubs, private schools, and fine real estate options along the many beautiful tree-lined streets and fashionable thoroughfares. The Upper East Side is a hub for international business and is home to many international consulates and missions to the United Nations. It is an area steeped in rich history and tradition, diverse in culture, and forever growing and flourishing with the times.