One of NYC’s most livable neighborhoods, the area is home to some of the city’s most venerable cultural and educational institutions like Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School and Columbia University along with some of the most desirable apartment buildings like the Dakota, Apthorp, Ansonia and the Beresford. As a result, the neighborhood is populated with families, yuppies, intellectuals and artists and has long been known as the bastion of New York City’s liberal thinking. The large apartments and formerly cheap rents attracted families, college graduates and a large Jewish population, both well-to-do German Jews who moved in at the turn of the century, and Jewish refugees escaping Hitler's Europe in the 1930's. Also, the influx of southern blacks, Russians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and Ukranians in the forties and fifties, and Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans in the fifties and sixties has kept the area diverse and demographically unpredictable. All these elements have rendered the UWS solidly middle class with a diverse liberal constituency and a bohemian attitude.
In the early part of the 1900s, the Upper West Side area south of 67th Street was heavily populated by African-Americans and supposedly gained its nickname of "San Juan Hill" in commemoration of African-American soldiers who were a major part of the assault on Cuba's San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. But by 1960, the area was a rough neighborhood of tenement housing and was used for exterior shots in the movie musical West Side Story. Urban renewal then swept through with the construction of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Lincoln Towers apartments during 1962–1968.
From the post-WWII years until the AIDS epidemic, the neighborhood, especially below 86th Street, had a substantial gay population. Theater people had been attracted to the neighborhood because of its proximity and easy transportation to the Theater District, and among these were many gay men. As the neighborhood had deteriorated it was affordable to working-class gay men, and those just arriving in NYC and looking for their first white collar jobs. Its ethnically mixed gay population, mostly Hispanic and white, with a mixture of income levels and occupations patronized the same gay bars in the neighborhood, making it markedly different from most gay enclaves elsewhere in the city. The influx of white gay men in the Fifties and Sixties is often credited with accelerating the second gentrification of the Upper West Side, and by the mid and late 70's the gay male population had become predominantly white.
From the early thirties through the early eighties, and the Upper West Side's popularity and social attractiveness waned, making it an undesirable address but still maintained a sense of community, attracting artists, writers, and young families with its relatively low rents and neighborhood feel. In the ‘70s and early 80’s an influx of recent college graduates drawn to the low rents and the wealth of the late 80s renewed the area, raising rents and drawing yuppies and their accompanying incomes; this influx prompted renovation of the grand old buildings of the earlier era.
Today, the sidewalks are always crowded during the day with performers rushing to auditions and families making their way through the streets, as the Upper West Side is once again experiencing an inundation of young affluent thirty-somethings, and available apartments disappear faster than they appear on the market. Gentrification has wiped out many of the small businesses that once made the Upper West Side distinctive, but holdouts remain, and you can still find everything from good bagel shops to great bookstores. Now, the neighborhood is rather upscale with the median household income in many areas exceeding Manhattan average to a considerable extent.