N. Y. meets L. A.


NOT SINCE yuppies made the wrenching discovery back in 1985 that brie actually could get too ripe has the Upper West Side had such an identity crisis.

Wendy Wasserstein knew something was awry when she walked into a building on Central Park West the other day, looking for an apartment, and was proudly informed by the doorman: "You know who lives here? Steven Spielberg's screenwriter and Julia Roberts' agent."

"It's getting to be like '77 Sunset Strip' around here," the playwright said. "Kids think the topiary of a flying horse at Tavern on the Green is the Tristar horse."

It was bad enough when Bruce Willis moved in. And when Donald Trump hung a self-effacing sign on the scaffolding at 1 Central Park West: "The Most Important New Address in the World. Trump."

But now there is full-blown existential angst, thanks to a glitzy nighttime soap opera coming to CBS this fall called "Central Park West."

Once you are enacted, of course, you cease to exist in the same way. "The reality goes and you become a character in a play," says Don Hewitt, the "60 Minutes" producer who lives on the block. "Central Park West will disappear as a real place and become a movie location. In everyone's mind, Casablanca is a place where a guy had a bar."

Being subsumed into a more glamorous video reality may be fine for towns like Dallas, Miami and Santa Barbara. But many West Side boulevardiers have a highly specific, lovingly cultivated self-image: They pride themselves on being more intellectual, artsy and ethnically authentic than their brethren across the park. They are studiously casual, preferring to be judged by bookshelves rather than footwear. At co-op board meetings in the West, refugees from the East love to tell horror stories about their old buildings, how a kid got in trouble for taking off his shirt in the lobby or how a maid had to use the service elevator.

They are proud of their rituals. "I go to Barney Greengrass and buy my mother pumpernickel, Nova Scotia salmon, pickled herring and chocolate-covered halvah," Beverly Sills said. And they are smug about their view because they get the Fifth Avenue skyline at West Side prices.

CBS sent out pictures of its beautiful cast swathed in black, promising that the show will be "a sophisticated, urban drama about a cross-section of young New Yorkers whose lives play out with the same intensity that drives the city." In other words, Darren Star, the 33-year-old executive producer who also created "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place," is sticking with a winning formula: Cat fights, good hair and bad dialogue. You'll see red satin lingerie, but you won't see food zealots picking through the produce bins of Fairway.

The plot revolves around the new editor of a glossy magazine, played by Mariel Hemingway, who shows her savvy in the first episode by finding a penthouse with a terrace for $3,000 a month. (Ms. Hemingway, who also lives on Central Park West in real life, told me this was an acting stretch: "You couldn't even rent my bathroom for $3,000.)

The show tries to capture the flavor of the city in the first scene, when Ms. Hemingway is berated by a cab driver with an accent and forced to bribe the doorman. Other characters include a Jackie O. type (Lauren Hutton); her son, a JFK Jr.-style assistant district attorney, and her daughter, a vampy, tattooed night-life columnist who has "the survival instincts of a snake."

Certainly, there are those who will argue that "Seinfeld," with its moral epiphanies in weight rooms and harangues on toilet paper technology, represents a more flattering portrayal of the neighborhood. And some will sniff that verisimilitude would dictate cutting afternoon champagne seduction scenes and adding scenes with slightly overweight people in Birkenstocks pushing baby strollers.

But, as an alumna of the Upper West Side, I must confess I am eager to trade in my image of the place for Hollywood's.

For instance, consider this scene in "Central Park West" between the columnist and her new editor. Looking ominous with a black leather jacket and blood red nails, the columnist pulls a cigarette from a silver case as she explains her "ground rules": "I do what I like, where I like, when I like. Don't question my expense reports. Don't expect me at staff meetings. And my columns get in every time as written."

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

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