Designed by Olmsted and Vaux (the fellows who did the same for Central and Prospect Parks) in 1873, Riverside Avenue - it became a Drive in 1908-
was basically a real estate speculation. The idea was to transform an area of small farms, some houses and many squatters’ shacks into a new Fifth Avenue, which had begun to fill up with the overstuffed mansions of the city’s leading families. O and V’s street design followed the rough natural curves of the hilly path and called for a long narrow park between the avenue and the open train tracks below. The avenue and its park would run from 72nd Street to the Claremont Hotel, just north of the current location of Grant’s Tomb.
According to Peter Salwen’s charming and definitive book on the history of the Upper West Side, although the new avenue attracted some very wealthy folk who built mansions, it never really competed with Fifth Avenue for New York’s old money. Perhaps this was due to the noise from the trains passing below, the foghorns and whistles of the boats on the river, and the noisome atmosphere provided by a north wind passing over the slaughterhouses near 60th Street.
Although the mansions did not appear in the numbers expected, a remarkable number of apartment buildings went up during the 1910’s and 20’s. And that, with only a few more modern additions, is the Riverside Drive of today.
So if I had to assign a personality to Riverside Drive, it would be that of a boulevardier tamed by age. With the Robert Moses improvements to the
park during the 30’s, the train noises disappeared and the park grew to be what it is today. What had originally been intended for the super-wealthy nouveaux riche ended up a boulevard for the upper middle class – many of them Jewish. And, in my opinion, one of the world’s great residential boulevards – less well known than Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, but that is probably because tourists nearly never make their way to see its pleasures.