Kagan's Diverse, 'Decrepit' Manhattan Helped Shape Her Outlook
In the Manhattan neighborhood of Elena Kagan’s youth in the 1960s and 1970s, drug addicts and prostitutes conducted their business minutes from the doormen and marbled lobby of her childhood home.
The future U.S. Supreme Court nominee’s mother, a schoolteacher, and father, an attorney, were typical residents of the Upper West Side’s grand boulevards. Three blocks away in Sherman Square, a scrap of greenery where Broadway crosses Amsterdam Avenue, heroin was being sold in the open, a scene memorialized in Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 movie “The Panic in Needle Park” starring Al Pacino.
“One of the advantages of growing up in New York in those days was that you saw a broad swath of life just walking down the street,” said Margaret Raymond, 50, a high school friend of Kagan’s who worked as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall a year before Kagan did. “Her worldview includes a wide range of experience just because of what she saw and where she lived.”
Kagan, 50, who is President Barack Obama’s solicitor general, hasn’t spoken much about her childhood and isn’t granting interviews as she awaits Senate confirmation hearings.
According to Raymond, Kagan and their peers at Hunter College High School had high aspirations and expectations.
The school was a “place full of people who might be Supreme Court justices,” Raymond said. “This was really a place that was full of smart, serious young women who were going places in life.”
In a November 1980 article in Princeton University’s school newspaper as Ronald Reagan won the presidency, Kagan said she absorbed her liberal principles early in life and bemoaned Democratic losses at the polls.
“Where I grew up -- on Manhattan’s Upper West Side -- nobody ever admitted to voting Republican,” she wrote.
In the late 1960s, residents of the Upper West Side, which stretches from the west side of Central Park to the Hudson River, marched down Broadway, Manhattan’s longest thoroughfare, carrying candles and their children, to call for an end to the Vietnam War. The Village Voice dubbed the neighborhood the Upper Left Side for its liberal political views.
“It wasn’t the expensive place to live that it is now,” said Lawrence Block, the novelist whose character Bernie Rhodenbarr, a gentleman thief and used bookseller, lives in a fictional apartment at 71st Street and West End Avenue, four blocks from where Kagan lived as a young girl.
As hard drugs reached Manhattan, chunks of the Upper West Side near Kagan’s home turned “really nasty,” Block said in a telephone interview.
Schatzberg used junkies who hung out a block from Kagan’s home as extras in his film. “They pointed out which buildings they go into to buy drugs and where they’d shoot up half a block away,” he said in a telephone interview from his own Upper West Side home.
The Upper West Side was “decrepit and getting worse,” said architectural historian Christopher Gray, who also lived there.
“Very, very gritty,” is how Olga Statz, 45, described the area when she was growing up. She remembers abandoned buildings, slums, street crime and rent strikes, announced with red lettering on white sheets hanging from windows.
Statz, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, bought plantains at local bodegas, knew the proprietors of the corner stores and saw Caribbean natives and Latinos living alongside Jews from Central Europe and Chinese immigrants.
Wandering the Streets
“It was the world in a few blocks,” said Statz, who lived at 101st Street and Broadway and later at 94th and Amsterdam. “That is something I’ve never seen again, anywhere.”
Raymond recalls wandering the city with Kagan as a girl, holding long conversations in the coffee shops that then dotted the neighborhood. Long before Starbucks arrived, she saw her first cappuccino at Café La Fortuna on West 71st Street, and tasted cakes at the Éclair pastry shop, where New York magazine said in 1971, “Mitteleuropa gathers at 4 p.m. to revive the afternoon with coffee and pastries.”
“We were New York kids,” said Raymond, who was a year ahead of Kagan at Hunter College High School, where Kagan’s mother, Gloria, taught for many years in the elementary school.
As Kagan prepared for college, the Upper West Side joined the broader revitalization of New York City, said Gray, an architectural history columnist for the New York Times and owner of the Office for Metropolitan History, an archive research firm.
Regulated rents forced many landlords to sell their buildings to tenant cooperatives, a move that spurred the revitalization and gentrification of side streets filled with decaying townhouses and once-elegant buildings that had become flophouses and residential hotels.
Rowhouses that in 1970 would have cost $30,000 had climbed to $1 million by 1987, the New York Times reported that year. Now they routinely sell for $7 million and more, according to broker Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate.
Needle Park has been landscaped, and mothers now sit on its benches playing with their toddlers. Barney’s Co-Op sells blue jeans for $265 a pair a block away. The once rundown Beacon Hotel at 76th and Broadway now rents rooms for $225 a night, and the disused rail yards five blocks south became condos developed by the celebrity real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
Today, the average family income in Kagan’s old neighborhood is $156,000, or double the national average; 75 percent of the residents are white and 53 percent have college degrees, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for the congressional district encompassing her former home.
Her family’s two-bedroom, three-bath 1,700 square-foot apartment with a maid’s room in the 1924 building sold for $1.325 million in 2009, a sign of the neighborhood’s climb to upper-middle-class status from its mixed roots a half-century earlier.
“She was very much a product of that place,” said Michael Dorf, who lived in the Trump development from 1995 to 2008 while a law professor at Columbia University in New York. While the Upper West Side remains liberal, it has become more well-to-do and the intellectual fervor of Kagan’s youth has dissipated and she may be edging to the center as well, Dorf said in an interview.
“The entire political spectrum has moved to the right,” Dorf said from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where he now teaches.