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The atmosphere of the Upper West Side has been a breeding ground for great works of
fiction since the early days of the city. Writers want to sink their teeth into its elegance and
history, and their books both capture and enhance the mythology of the neighborhood. The
books illuminate the experience of walking in its streets—and walking in its streets connects
generations of readers to the spirit of the books.
Located at the heart of this mythic neighborhood, The Chatsworth was made to embody a
New York architectural dream of what was possible in this city when it was built in 1904. It
has been a defining fixture in the neighborhood since the days when it was the largest
building of its kind, forging a new mode of luxury Upper West Side living overlooking the
J.D. Salinger probably walked past it many times as he grew up in the city, and maybe
Holden Caulfield passed by it on his way to The American Museum of Natural History
(AMNH) at Central Park West and 79th Street in Salinger’s New York City masterpiece, The
Catcher in the Rye. Eager to connect Holden’s New York to his own, writer Thomas Beller
went back to AMNH after rereading the book to better understand how deeply the voice of
Holden had helped create the neighborhood of his childhood. Beller explains that he was
charmed by Holden’s homage to the museum and describes a kind of déjà vu evoked by the
following passage: “’Sometimes we looked at the animals and sometimes we looked at the
stuff the Indians had made in ancient times,’ he recalls. ‘It always smelled like it was raining
outside, even if it wasn’t, and you were in the only nice, dry, cosy place in the world. I loved
that damn museum.’”
Another book which has left its mark on the city forever is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great
Gatsby, a story that solidified the identity of the Jazz Age and the city’s role in that cultural
phenomenon. The narrator, Nick Carraway, goes for a drive in the park with Jordan Baker
and captures the romance of the city in both the images of his descriptions and in the
cadences of his voice, which match the rhythms of the scene before him: “The sun had gone
down behind the tall apartments of the movie stars in the West Fifties and the clear voices
of little girls, already gathered like crickets on the grass, rose through the hot twilight… It was
dark now and as we dipped under a little bridge I put my arm around Jordan’s golden
shoulder and drew her to me… We passed a barrier of dark trees, and then the facade of
Fifty-ninth Street, a block of delicate pale light, beamed down into the park.” Any resident of
the Upper West Side knows those particular places and times of day when you are in Central
Park but in some ways closer to the city because of the views of the skyline the park
affords—a skyline continuously defined by the ways writers have described it.
Yet another Upper West Side must-read is Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, a book whose setting
is just a few square Upper West Side blocks, whose small globe of reality becomes an
extension of the hero Wilhelm’s psychological state, as well as a microcosm of the world.
And for a different kind of glimpse of the old New York Upper West Side glamour
embodied by The Chatsworth, read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, in which the Upper
West Side itself appears to be part of Carrie’s inspiration to chase the American Dream and become a star.
Although Carrie’s story may be tarnished, The Chatsworth luxury apartments
are the perfect embodiment not only of this neighborhood, but of the neighborhood’s past
and the imaginations that have built—and are still building—it.