“Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.” -Ray Bradbury
Halloween on the lush tree-lined streets of West 69th Street between Broadway and Central Park West could be Manhattan’s most mystical and intriguing event. The well-guarded annual celebration, host to thousands of trick-or-treaters, is shrouded in secrecy among residents who keep mum for fear of attracting even more candy seeking goblins to the already wickedly mobbed monster celebration.
Practically overnight, rows of brownstones, many dating back to the 1890s, along with early 20th century apartment buildings, transform themselves into haunted houses. Macabre corpses, dangling skeletons, swinging bats, giant spiders, decaying mummies, witches in flight, red eyed demons, and other creepy ghouls sprout limbs from windows, hang from ledges, or spook you from tall mature trees.
No one would ever guess the elaborate Halloween décor on most of the buildings, on what is the safest and largest Halloween party for children of all ages, takes place on what was once an almost barren street.
Halloween on West 69th Street began in 1969 at a time when only six trees could be counted between Broadway and Central Park West. Gentrification was spurred on by the construction of Lincoln Center during the 1960s. This lured young professionals of the New York intelligentsia — teachers, writers, artists — into the area in their quest for affordable housing. However, these new residents kept their children inside their apartments and away from the menace still found in pockets of the neighborhood. One resident who has been on the block since 1964 said of the era: “It was a pretty rotten time for my kid to be growing up on the block which was a desolate wasteland.”
EARLY YEARS: Creation of the Block Association
One cloudy moonlight night, in the spring of 1969, after a would-be burglar was chased off the rooftop at 107 West 69th Street by the police, robe-clad residents found themselves discussing the incident that shook them from their sleep.
The group of young artists and professions, scoffed at by their Upper East Side peers for choosing to live in a yet to be sought after locale, came up with the idea of creating a Block Association before returning to their slumber on that frightful murky night.
The first President of the newly formed W69th Street Block Association was a young Cornell law student named Richard Gottfried (elected to the New York State Assembly in 1970 — a post he still holds to this day). Needing a place for meetings, Gottfried approached Christ and St. Stephen’s Church, and enlisted the support of then rector Rev. Josepgh Zorawick.
Father Zorawick graciously invited the group to use the church’s undercroft as a meeting place. Without the assistance of the Church it would have been nearly impossible to have our now famed Halloween celebrations, or any of the other wonderful programs the Block Association has created throughout the years.
Halloween on West 69th Street
Gwen Verdon (then married to Bob Fosse) approached the newly formed Block Association for permission to bring her little girl, Nicole, outside of their apartment building at 91 Central Park West to trick or treat on the block. West 69 Street had become, in a relatively short time, a sort of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, with residents feeling they were living in a small town within a big city.
The association agreed and many of the buildings eagerly participated. Some residents decorated their front stoops with pumpkins while others spilled out onto the street with children and bags of candy in tow to partake of the festivities.
The image of little Nicole dressed as Lady Godiva with long blond cascading locks sitting on a white custom built carousel-type horse with four men hoisting her off the ground still lingers on in the memory of many. But then, this was the little girl of Broadway legends, and it was the perfect over the top moment that in many ways inspired the amazing unbroken Halloween tradition of this most extraordinary block.
The spell spread quickly. Where at first there may have been 20 children who lived on the block in attendance, that number more than doubled the following year when they invited their friends. Then it quadrupled the year after, and then it grew exponentially when mothers from different parts of the city began bringing their children to the best-kept-secret-trick-or-treat event on the Upper West Side.
At last count over 4,000 children with their parents and friends wearing wonderful costumes make the pilgrimage to the sweet street of treats. But, shush, you didn’t hear this from me.
A 1978 excerpt of the W69 St newsletter states:
“More than 500 children attended the Block Association’s (1978) Halloween Party, and for the first time BOTH BLOCKS between Central Park West and Broadway were closed to traffic.”
During the early years there were costume parades and prizes for the little ones with the best costume. Everyone would meet in front of St. Stephen’s Church were princesses, goblins and superheroes with eager little fingers reached into an over-sized cauldron full of candy for their treats.
Once the streets became too packed and had to be closed to traffic, the parade gave way to crowds of people and children of all ages, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds, making their way from one spooky building to another.
Volunteers in participating buildings hand out candy every year to a seemingly endless chorus of giggling children thrusting out their hands yelling ‘trick-or-treat!’
Halloween Building Decorations
By the mid 1970s some of the buildings along West 69th Street decorated their front steps with carved pumpkins surrounded by golden fall leaves. Others strung up lights up around the trees from where bats or spiders ominously lurked.
Among the first scary attractions was the infamous Spook Tunnel that had its beginnings in the alley of building #28. It then moved to building #39 where the servant’s entrance was transformed into its new “come in if you dare” facade. One long-term resident said: “They screamed to go in and they screamed to come out. It scared them to death. It was wonderful.”
Forty-five years later the decorations on some of the brownstones and buildings lining West 69th Street have morphed into a magical Harry Potteresque-like world. To get all the work completed some people begin working either in their lobbies or the exterior of their buildings by the middle of October to be ready in time for All Hallows’ Eve.
One family hires professional aerialists and entertainers. People still talk about Spiderman climbing in and out of windows and rappelling down the front of their brownstone.
Halloween: An Unbroken Tradition
October 29, 2012 started ominously in New York City. President Obama issued an emergency declaration for New York as Hurricane Sandy headed toward the city. Pre-storm surges had already caused severe flooding in some areas and the city shut down. Schools were closed and even the subways stopped working as everyone hunkered down for the storm of the century.
The Block Association sent out an email to residents. The police department canceled the no parking permit for Halloween on West 69th Street as the officers would be busy needed to keep New Yorkers safe. Officially, it meant Halloween on West 69th Street was, for the first time, not going to happen.
However, some of the buildings had been decorated and some residents still hoped to distribute candy to whoever might show up on October 31st at 6pm.
Magic always happens on 69th Street
Over 2,000 people made it to the block even though the streets were not closed to traffic. The Auxiliary Police (who have helped with crowd control for over three decades) didn’t get word that Halloween had been canceled and so they showed up too. Parents, who had been locked away at home with their children for days, were incredibly grateful and all had a wonderful respite from the fright of Hurricane Sandy. All were incredibly grateful to the residents who made Halloween happen even when it wasn’t supposed to.
It is a spirited block: West 69th Street. If anyone had a doubt about the commitment of the people who call this home and those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make magic on Halloween — that night proved our Halloween tradition was unbreakable.
Predates the Village’s Halloween Parade
It is fascinating to note that Halloween on West 69th Street predates the Village’s Halloween Parade which began in 1974. Ours is also the only two-block Halloween celebration anywhere that welcomes thousands of goblins, ghouls, cartoon characters, super heroes and princesses clamoring at our doors . There is no other party like ours anywhere else in the city. All the children, young and old, who are privy to our evening of enchantment end the evening with pumpkins full of candy and giddy with happiness.
If we had a looking glass that could see back in time to 1969 and caught sight of robe clad residents huddled in front of 107 West 69th Street under a midnight moon talking about things that go bump in the night, we’d notice a glow around them, and know the magic had just begun.
2017 Copyright Kirby Sommers