The Upper West Side of New York is filled art, culture, and great views of Central Park if you’re lucky enough to live in the buildings lining its border. One such complex is The Dakota, located at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd street. It’s high gables and balustrades give this building a bizarre yet intimidating look. The interior helps this aesthetic both with its layout and rules. No two apartments are alike in The Dakota, and the process of acquiring a space is rigorous. It takes some applicants years to submit all the proper forms and information, but that doesn’t guarantee them an apartment. Notable applicants turned away include Cher, Billy Joel, and Judd Apatow. That said, this building was made for the affluent which is why people like Bono, Rosemary Clooney, and John Lennon all called this place home. In fact, Lennon was murdered in front of The Dakota in 1980.
The Dakota opened in 1884 and was fully rented out from the get-go, despite it being quite out of the way at the time it was constructed. The name “Dakota” was a joke about how the building was so far northwest that it might as well be in North Dakota. The distance didn’t seem to bother the rich tenets of the city too much. Families like The Steinways (the piano family) kept the place so full that there were no vacancies in the building for the first 45 years of its life. Strangely, even during those early days, reports of spirits in the building were very common.
During construction, several painters claimed to see the spirit of a small girl playing a with a ball in the hallways. The girl has remained a staple in the building since then, making regular appearances in the main foyer. Some of the other ghostly residents include a grown man with the face of a child and an older gentleman who resides in the basement near the boilers. The most famous spirit, however, is that of John Lennon, who’s seen regularly by residents of The Dakota including his wife, Yoko Ono.
Lennon seemed to attract ghostly attention more than most in the building. He would constantly see supernatural beings, like the little girl and the man with a child’s face. He even saw a ghost no had reported before. He once told Ono he saw “a crying lady ghost” roaming the hallways at night. Not long after, Lennon joined their ranks. So why did they appear to him? Did the spirits know something we didn’t? Why are there spirits there at all?
Ghost stories typically start with a tragic story of the living. A terrible murder, suicide, or an accident, not fulfilling a goal while one is alive, all of these are considered catalysts that create supernatural beings. However, up until Lennon’s murder, no such tragedies happened at The Dakota. Reports of spirits were around before the building was even completed, and none of the spirits before Lennon have an identity beyond how they appear to the living. The closest I’ve been able to find is that the basement ghost sort of resembles Edward Clark, the man responsible for building The Dakota. But even that connection is very loose.
The Upper West Side is a peaceful community. A neighborhood full of families, sights, restaurants, and museums. There are a few dark spots in its history. However, compared to the rest of New York, the Upper West Side was prosperous and beautiful since its inception. This makes it a great neighborhood to live in, but not a great one if you’re looking for supernatural happenings. Yet The Dakota is always listed as one of the most haunted buildings in the city, making it a true anomaly in the area.
There’s a theory amongst the ghost hunting community that, while many spirits are born from tragedy, they are also born from energy and passion, which The Dakota has in spades. The number of actors, authors, musicians, and painter who’ve lived here over the years certainly have left their marks on the complex. The artistic history of the building goes beyond its residents, being the set for many films such as the 1968 version of Rosemary’s Baby. The Dakota produces more than just creative energy, sporting an in-house powerplant that generates enough energy to light up every building in a four block radius. Ghost enthusiasts say this combination of creative and electrical energy makes spirit activity inevitable.
The energy theory seems like a stretch to me, but I must admit that artistic passion does resonate with the sprits of the Dakota. It takes such a passion for these stories to exist and get passed down in the first place. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, the stories can still touch you the same way a great book or song can. In fact, when the spirit of John Lennon is seen, he’s often at a piano, plunking out a small tune.
Art and history are one and the same in the Upper West Side, especially in The Dakota. The building itself makes a statement on the neighborhood. It calls to those with an urge to create and perform. It provides its residents with a space for growth and exploration. It feeds on that passion and creativity storing that energy so it can be dispersed to those who need it. Some say The Dakota feeds off the creative energy of its residents, even after they’re gone. However, there’s only one way to know that for sure. If you’re feeling brave, take a trip to 72nd street, or maybe move in. Maybe you’ll see a grown man connecting with his inner child, a small colonial girl playing pretend, or you might hear a soft melody being freshly composed on a Steinway piano.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528