Keeping Up the Avenue

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Richard Emery and Erika Petersen, co-founders of the West End Preservation Society, are not just looking to protect the historic townhouses of West End Avenue, but an entire way of life.

“There are a lot of families, and it’s great in the afternoon when they’re out,” Petersen said. “The feel of community is consistent up and down the avenue, which is why we want it to stay this way.”

Emery and Petersen have both been residents of the Upper West Side for more than 30 years. Emery, a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, grew up in the Village and moved uptown to attend Columbia Law School. Petersen came to New York City as an aspiring actress in the 1970s and found a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. When her child was born, she went back to school and earned a teaching degree at Hunter College.

Richard Emery, West End Preservation Society

Richard Emery, West End Preservation Society

The two neighbors formed the preservation group in 2007 after the townhouses they lived next door to were threatened by demolition. They called together a meeting in one of their apartments and were surprised that about 50 people showed up.

“We started organizing, first against that one decimation of the two brownstones with rent-controlled tenants in them, and we realized there would be others,” Emery said.

Since then, the group has grown to more than 300, with several members, including Emery and Petersen, making the preservation work their second job.

“When you look at the main avenues, such as Park Avenue, Central Park West and Riverside Drive, you see all of them have been tortured and desecrated by modern architecture that replaced brownstones or pre-war buildings,” Emery said.

The grassroots organization has also worked closely with elected officials and Community Board 7.

“Their targeted efforts to protect and preserve the character of West End Avenue in the face of encroaching development exemplify the kind of inspiring community organizing for which the West Side of Manhattan is famous,” State Sen. Tom Duane said.

Rather than sit and wait for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to do the research, the group retained Columbia University professor Andrew S. Dolkart to conduct a study of the architecture on West End Avenue, between West 70th and 107th streets.

Erika Petersen, West End Preservation Society

Erika Petersen, West End Preservation Society

“We said, ‘Here is the research, here is the study for you to judge,’” Petersen said.

The group formally submitted its request for evaluation to Landmarks in March and hopes the area will be given landmark status by next spring.

“Their efforts, through the West End Preservation Society, have raised awareness of our neighborhood’s precious and irreplaceable architectural heritage,” Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal said. “Their tenacity will ensure that neighborhoods retain their historic character for future generations to marvel at and enjoy.”

But the group has no plans to disband after West End Avenue wins landmark status. Instead, Emery and Peterson hope to continue teaching others about the neighborhood’s rich history by installing plaques highlighting information about area buildings.

“It’ll be a place where people could walk, read and immerse themselves in the history of the West End,” Emery said.

Like other Upper West Side residents, Emery and Petersen will continue to enjoy the relative peace of West End Avenue and all it has to offer, which, Emery said, is more than most places.

“I don’t think there’s any other place in New York or the world that has so much to offer on one block.”

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