The flimsy shacks where New Yorkers lived on a pre-luxury Riverside Drive

After “Riverside Avenue” officially opened in 1880, it was billed as Manhattan’s new elite thoroughfare, soon to rival Fifth Avenue as a street of Gilded Age mansions.

Riverside Drive and 111th Street

On Riverside, “‘any ordinary millionaire’ could afford to construct what the Record & Guide considered a proper millionaire’s home; ‘a fashionable edifice surrounded by grounds and having such approaches in the way of lawns and walks that will heighten the architectural ensemble,'” quoted Peter Salwen in his 1989 book, Upper West Side Story.

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, after 1890

Though Riverside Drive (the name was officially changed in 1908) never replaced Fifth Avenue in wealth and luxury, it came close—attracting monied Manhattanites who paid builders and architects big bucks to construct elaborate mansions overlooking Riverside Park with Hudson River views.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1905

But despite the high-class dwelling houses going up on this avenue of gentle curving carriage drives, many parts of the Drive still reflected a much poorer area, one where residents lived in flimsy wood houses that could be described as shacks or shanties.

Who lived in them? Probably longtime residents who were eclipsed by the Gilded Age economy. Before the late 19th century, this stretch of what became the Upper West Side was dotted with farms and industry from the Hudson River, and there were no developers interested in getting their hands on what eventually became expensive land.

One resident was a man known as “Uncle Jim” Miller. He made headlines when he died in his shack “on fashionable Riverside Drive opposite 170th Street,” as The New York Age put it in a 1922 story.

Riverside Drive, unknown cross street, 1892

Miller, a laborer, made the paper because he was the “last squatter” on Riverside Drive, dying in his “one-room board shack” strengthened by “sheets of tin” after 22 years living there. He was 73.

Riverside Drive opened in sections, with the Viaduct bringing the Drive to 135th Street by the turn of the century. What did the Drive’s wealthy residents think of their struggling neighbors, who they must have seen on strolls or bicycles, or from their motor cars?

Riverside Drive and 115th Street, 1897

Of course, the presence of rundown shacks in close proximity to multi-story mansions really wasn’t all that unusual at the time. Even Upper Fifth Avenue had its shanties and sad wood houses, such as this one on today’s 89th Street.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 17 or October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: MCNY X2012.61.22.13; third photo: The New York Age; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: New-York Historical Society]

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12 Responses to “The flimsy shacks where New Yorkers lived on a pre-luxury Riverside Drive”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I’m sure the wealthy couldn’t wait until all those shacks were torn down and the human beings who inhabited them no longer marred their nice views.

  2. Don Burmeister Says:

    Thanks for the pix. I do have to question the location of the last shot however (Riverside and 115th St.) Seems to me that when I walk from Riverside Drive to Broadway in that neighborhood (almost every day!) that there is a distinct hill, while the picture has a vast flat plain in the background. Another possible anomaly is the trolley tracks — but then maybe a tram-head knows if there were any along Riverside Ave at that time.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I should have been clearer in my description of the address; I see that the caption of the photo says “near Riverside Drive and 115th Street.” So perhaps it was farther up closer to West End Ave, or maybe it’s just an error. The presence of the trolley tracks makes me think this photo might be from another UWS location:

  3. Chris Fletcher Says:

    Another factor making the area less desirable was the poor air quality. Having briefly lived in Edgewater across the river, I learned that there were a whole host of chemical and oil based companies pumping a lot of contaminants into the water, and into the prevailing-westerly breezes. It made living downwind places to avoid.

    • Greg Says:

      Good point. There were a lot of reasons back then to not want to live right on the water that are easy for us to overlook now.

  4. velovixen Says:

    Chris and Greg,

    Another reason why the wealthy didn’t want to live by the water was that roughnecks worked on the docks and other facilities. That’s what made 5th and Madison so fashionable: They were inland, far from the unsightliness.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Great points, it’s no accident that New York’s longtime most luxurious street is exactly in the middle of Manhattan Island and as far from the water you can get on either side.

  5. Kiwiwriter Says:

    When my Dad was growing up in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, if you dated a girl who lived on Riverside Drive, you were dating “up.”

  6. James W Says:

    The shacks appear to be flimsy, giving me the impression that they might not make through a winter but third photo dated 1905 has lovely, well-groomed box hedges on two sides. Whatever their circumstance some inhabitants display a certain pride in ownership.

  7. George Morgenweck Says:

    Let’s see something about the (REAL) Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where I lived from 1935-1950.

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