Meet 86th Street
In the early twentieth century, 86th Street was the heart of the area known as “Germantown.” At one point, New York had the third largest German-speaking population in the world after Vienna and Berlin. By 1900, many of those immigrants had moved to the Upper East Side to settle in what is more commonly known today as “Yorkville.” They set up many “Vereines,” the German term for social and singing clubs. At the center of these clubs, 86th Street became known as “Sauerkraut Boulevard” or “German Broadway.”
“German Broadway” begins with Henderson Place, a beautiful, historical cul-de-sac just steps away from Carl Schurz Park. The small stretch of street is home to twenty-four houses in the Queen Anne style built in the early 1880s. Walking along the tiny quiet street, I could not help but feel transported to a different time, where cars were fewer and roads were quieter.
Today, a variety of fascinating cultures reside on the two-way east-to-west thoroughfare. One of the first places I came across was Maz Mezcal, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that has been on the Upper East Side since 1972. The staff there is one big happy family, both figuratively and literally, as they made us immediately feel like part of the clan.
Tisane Pharmacy is another neighborhood watering hole. Started by two Russian women who wanted to develop a pharmacy that was similar to both 1950s American soda fountain drugstores and modern day European shops, Tisane Pharmacy serves tea, coffee, soda and snacks to customers, while also functioning as a fully-stocked pharmacy. A little farther down the street, City Swiggers is a beer store owned by an American husband-and-wife team. All the employees are extremely knowledgeable, and it is one of the few places in the city where one can have any growler filled, no matter what its origin.
I discovered two French eateries during my trek west. One was fronted by a familiar face: Florent Cohen, who opened Crepes & Delices on West 72nd Street and has added another location on the Upper East Side. I also visited Demarchelier, a traditional French bistro with a friendly, colorful vibe.
Papaya King was one of the few places on my walk that clearly had a connection to the neighborhood’s German past. Though it started its life as a simple juice shop run by a Greek gentleman, Gus fell in love with a local German woman named Birdie, who encouraged him to start selling frankfurters, a German specialty. The rest is history. Laytner’s story is also that of immigrants: The fabric and home goods store was opened by Eastern Europeans on the Upper West Side in the 1960s. The founders’ son, Alan, is continuing his parents’ legacy.
Across Central Park, The Bard Graduate Center, established by Susan Weber in 1993, offers students an advanced degree in decorative arts. It also has a gallery that is open to the public, showcasing exhibits on material culture. La Mirabelle is a warm neighborhood restaurant that was opened in 1984 by a family from Brittany.
I received a great education from the Reverend at West Park Presbyterian Church. The church has been at the forefront of many liberal political and social issues, including gay rights and Occupy Wall Street. My final stop on 86th Street was at The Parlour, a two-floor Irish bar. It was always John Kelly’s vision to open a pub that would give “a peek of Ireland to the U.S.” It is not only the haunt of a loyal band of local regulars, but also a hangout for the Columbia rugby teams.
I continued walking past the Belnord, a block-long limestone residential building with a fraught history of rent strikes and stabilization, towards the Hudson River. I do not think I will ever become inured to the grand architecture of the Upper West Side.