A look back at 25 years of community news—and what busy years they were
Pick one story to represent a whole year? Impossible. But we did it anyway, keeping in mind that we wanted to represent the paper’s passion for reporting on city politics, crime, schools, real estate, business and the changing nature of our own neighborhoods. We’ve always covered the little stories, the ones that neighbors notice and tell us about. But we break big news too, like the 1991 investigation by Stacey Asip. Her reporting led to William Emerson, a homeless man, being freed after he had been indicted in the famous Jane Street murder.
Here is a look back, year by year and story by story, at just some of the gems we have been lucky enough to report throughout the past quarter-century.
“The West Side’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives”
West Side Spirit started with a bang. Or at least with a fair number of stories about the fear of the bang-bang crime culture that was an important part of urban life in the mid-1980s. A March story, “West Side Crime: The Story Behind the Numbers,” talked about how “Crime—and the fear of crime—pervades the life of most West Siders. Our personal safety, our need to protect our loved ones, has become the paramount issue of 1985 for many New Yorkers.” The story went on to say that many New Yorkers “believe that we are losing the battle against crime.” The paper ended the year in December with “The West Side’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives.”
“Child Pornography: Flourishing Through the Loopholes”
Street crime was not the only kind. West Side Spirit began its passion for investigative pieces early in its history. In this edition, there was a cover story about how child pornography ravaged neighborhoods—and lives. “In the bout between children’s rights and sex exploiters’ megabucks… it’s no contest,” we wrote. “Locally, profits are up and prosecutions are down.”
“Manhattan is the Muse”
We weren’t always so serious. The paper launched an annual fiction and poetry contest, tapping into the creative talent of West Siders. This edition featured the winners of West Side Spirit’s first annual fiction and poetry contest. But tragic news was never far away, since even this “special double issue” left plenty of room for serious subjects, like the “AIDS Primer” for readers.
“Invasion of the Theater Snatchers”
Tom Allon, the then-managing editor who would later become the company’s president and CEO, did a front-page piece about how “two powerful chains now control much of what you see, and what you’ll pay to see it.” The piece came in the wake of the 1987 closing of the Regency theater, the Upper West Side’s last remaining revival house, which was bought by Cineplex Odeon and converted into a first-run theater. The story underscored West Siders’ passion for all things cinematic. This would not be the last time that West Side Spirit investigated the retail landscape and whether smaller, independent businesses can survive.
“Now, the Hard Part”
Mayor-elect David Dinkins made history that year by becoming the city’s first-ever African-American to win the top spot at City Hall. But West Side Spirit took an early look at the daunting challenges he would face. Also in the paper: predictions on who would likely be key players in the new administration, which came to office after 12 years of the Koch administration.
West Side Spirit took a recession-era look at the state of real estate in the city—and the brave players who bet on a better future. The subtitle here is “Scoring Against the Slump,” a reminder that “a few mavericks… have turned the weak market to their advantage.” Among the success stories cited: William Zeckendorf, Jr., and his work to bring about Worldwide Plaza on the block bound by West 50th and 51st streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues.
“No Way Up”
West Side Spirit continued its political coverage, explaining why being mayor can be a dead-end job for New Yorkers. Mayor Ed Koch unsuccessfully tried to get himself elected governor in 1982. That turned out to prescient, since other mayors since then have found that it is
not easy to get a promotion from what’s long been called “the second toughest job in America.”
“The Wild Man of West 96th Street”
This story became a national sensation, picked up by other news outlets because it seemed to underscore the sense that something needed to be done to make city streets safer. The piece by Janet Wickenhaver delivered on what the headline promised, which was a look inside “what happens when a dangerous homeless man adopts a neighborhood that doesn’t want him.” The story detailed the efforts of Upper West Sider Lisa Lehr to confine a mentally homeless man, Larry Hogue, to a mental institution.
“Will Trump’s Riverside South Ever Get Off the Ground?”
Editor Faye Penn took on the hot topic of “Trump’s Gambit,” looking back in history and ahead to the battle over a key West Side development. In 1985, Trump unveiled his plan for what had been called Penn Yards. He said he would build something called “Television City,” but by 1994 the idea was refashioned and renamed Riverside South. “We want to stop the project,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler told West Side Spirit. “But we may not be able to.” Today, it’s closer than ever to final approval, though with the inclusion of a school and affordable housing, it’s far different from the original concept.
“A Tale of Two Schools”
West Side Spirit has a long and rich history of investigating educational issues and celebrating success in city schools. This piece by Jon Hart took aim at a key question: “How does one school flourish while a nearby school declines?” Only five blocks separated P.S. 9 and P.S. 166, “but academically they’re miles apart,” the story reported. “The tale of these two schools—which have made headlines recently as a result of a dispute over a Gifted and Talented program which both want—offers a glimpse at how two institutions only a quarter of a mile apart moved in opposite directions.” Today, of course, both schools are well-regarded and sought-after by local families.
“See Ruth Run”
This is the year when another West Side Spirit cover story asked the question, “Where Have All the Activists Gone?” But at least one familiar Upper West Sider, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, was about to stick her neck out. In a piece by James Rutenberg, who now toils at The New York Times, West Side Spirit asked, “How can a liberal from Manhattan win over the increasingly conservative neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island?” The answer came in November 1997: she couldn’t. But Messinger would go on to serve as a leader at American Jewish World Service.
“Donald Trump’s Card?”
Maybe it’s a journalistic credo: When it doubt, write about Trump. Now it is is true of newspapers all around the nation, but West Side Spirit covered Donald Trump as one of our own from the start. In 1997, editor Chris Erikson updated development-weary West Siders about The Donald’s latest plans. “After 12 years of maneuvering,” Erikson wrote, “Donald Trump says he’s set to break ground for the first phase of his Riverside South development. But while Trump revs his bulldozers, opponents of the plan vow to fight to the bitter end.” By the next year, West Side Spirit had a front-page question: “Will Riverside South Overwhelm Local Schools?”
“Talking in Circles”
For many years, West Siders wondered—and argued—about the future of Columbus Circle. In this issue, “Westsiders speak their minds on the future of Columbus Circle,” and boy, did they ever. “The entire area seems ready for an overhaul,” the paper said, setting the tone for West Siders to weigh in. “But change is rarely accomplished easily in New York.” True enough, but change would come to Columbus Circle.
“Homeless for the Holidays”
West Side Spirit asks whether Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown on street people is actually making poverty a crime. In this piece by city editor Mary Reinholz, the paper continued its years-long investigation into homelessness, from the perspective of those living through it and those living near it. One 27-year-old homeless man said: “I sleep in front of church steps because when you’re in front of the church steps, the police usually don’t bother you. They’ll bother you anywhere else.”
“Who Wants a Longer School Day?”
The current school year, West Side Spirit said, has its roots in a mostly agrarian society, which depended on children to help with farming during the summer. Since that set-up has changed, so too should the school year. At least that’s the argument made by some educational advocates. Their views were expressed in a cover story, which continued the paper’s tradition of asking questions about city schools.
“West Siders Rally”
The sub-headline was: “Heroes answer call of their city.” A nightmare of unprecedented proportions played out in our city and in the pages of West Side Spirit, as the paper told the tale of 9/11 as it was lived by New Yorkers. “There’s a basic human need to tell stories,” the paper said in a front-page editorial in the weeks after the attacks. “Sharing tales of joy or—in the case of this month—tragedy binds people together. It’s cathartic.” And the paper served in these weeks as a space and place for the sharing of stories about loss and pain and survival and a new era in the city and the world.
“What Should Mike Do About Schools?”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his first year as mayor, wanted and eventually won control of the city’s schools. “Community school boards are on their way out,” the paper said, addressing readers. “And it’s up to you, according to Assembly Member Steven Sanders, what should take their place.” Suggestions abounded from educational experts, polled by the paper. Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, advanced one theory: “We have to have for children,” he said, “what the American Association of Retired People is for retired people.”
This year, West Side Spirit launched the Blackboard Awards, a series of special issues and events celebrating excellence in city schools. The Blackboard Awards went on to become a separate and award-winning division of Manhattan Media. In the papers, space was set aside to honor specific schools and, eventually, teachers and principals.
“Registering Sex Offenders: Does It Prevent Crime?”
Continuing its investigative tradition, West Side Spirit’s reporter, Lauren A. Elkies, studied a hot topic in a two-part series. She started one article with a piece of news: While the state sexual offender subdirectory said there were no dangerous sexual offenders living on the Upper East Side, there were two listed by the police. Her series “Levels of Risk” looked behind the statistics to the debate about what really makes a community safe.
“Is Manhattan’s Republican Party Dead?”
In 1994, the borough’s GOP controlled seats in the State Senate, the Assembly and the City Council. But by 2005, the only Republican with a big political New York City job was the mayor. And he was thought by many to be a Republican in Name Only, or RINO. So West Side Spirit took a look at the Republican Party’s fall from grace—and wondered whether the liberal, urban Republican was becoming an endangered species.
“The Case for Charter Schools”
Years before the mainstream media began following the day-to-day battles over extending charter schools throughout the state and nation, West Side Spirit took aim at the debate over educational innovation. “The president, governor and mayor all want more of them,” the paper said on its front page about charter schools. “Why many believe they are part of the solution to improving our school system.” Writer and future editor Charlotte Eichna talked to advocates for lifting state limits on charters. Opponents spoke up, too, insisting that charters become better schools because they get to pick better students.
With Albany debating and eventually rejecting the mayor’s idea of congestion pricing, West Side Spirit got to wondering what would happen next. Traffic congestion remained a big, obvious issue. For his part, the mayor was candid about being disappointed over the lack of state help. “It’s sad to note that after three months of working with all parties to address their questions, the failure of the State Assembly to act in time on a deadline imposed by the federal government is a terrible setback for clean air and to our critical commitment to fight climate change,” he said in a statement.
“Is Broadway Dying?”
Empty storefronts forced West Side Spirit back into doing what it has done so many times over the years: covering the changing retail environment. It plays out neighborhood to neighborhood, even street to street, and the plethora of empty storefronts got the paper’s writers investigating Broadway’s future. One particularly popular complaint: the rise of the bank and drug store, with more and more of them appearing throughout the neighborhood.
“The Mayor’s Race: Focus on Housing and Development”
West Side Spirit took time to delve deeply into the issues of the mayoral campaign over several weeks, including matters like housing and transportation. In the housing issue, the mayor’s record of development was weighed against the promises of two Democratic challengers, Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., and Council Member Tony Avella. Thompson said he wanted “smart development,” meeting the more pressing needs of citizens. Avella joined Thompson is asking for a rent-freeze. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the eventual victor, touted his Five Borough Economic Recovery Plan, aimed at the recession. And the mayor argued he had already added 80,000 new units of affordable housing during his tenure. When it came to transportation, also a hot topic examined in the paper, the mayor had become well-identified with his congestion pricing proposal, which had failed to win over the State Legislature. Bloomberg himself became something of an issue when he sought to lift the two-term limit on mayors, eventually deciding to seek a third term. He won it, beating Thompson, but in a race that was narrower than many pundits had expected.