Neighborhood Tour: NYC's Secret Celebrity Hotspot, Turtle Bay
Four hundred years ago, Midtown East was a tuft of wilderness on the banks of the East River. As is the case for much of New York City’s early colonial history, Dutch settlers gradually built the first neighborhoods, snapping up parcels of free land handed out by Peter Stuyvesant along what is now 41st to 53rd streets. The Dutch moniker for the knife-shaped bay — deutal in translation — was anglicized to today’s Turtle Bay.
Despite its relative proximity to Grand Central, NYC landmarks and countless retail and dining options, the former home of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut has remained quietly overlooked in the heart of Manhattan. The neighborhood’s sequestered nature has long made it the perfect hideaway for celebrities seeking an escape from prying eyes. New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper even turned a little wistful upon recalling that his favorite Beatles member, John Lennon, resided here as well.
This insularity renders the district an ideal location for producers to shoot movies and television shows with little disturbance, Draper said. The Green Goblin balcony sequences in Sam Raimi’s "Spider-Man 2" were filmed on the higher terraces of the Tudor City apartment complexes; today, production permits for FOX crime drama Gotham can be found on electric posts scattered throughout the neighborhood.
“Most New Yorkers aren't even aware that this beautiful oasis exists,” said Adelaide Polsinelli, principal of NYC brokerage Eastern Consolidated. “It’s a sleepy enclave in the city, but steps away from bustling Midtown.”
Why the perpetual lack of outside interest, particularly in a neighborhood teeming with a microcosmic snapshot of everything the city has to offer? Turns out, it was built that way from the very beginning.
Turtle Bay is peppered with traces of nearly every major phase of American history. Midtown development flourished on the heels of the Civil War, with middle- and upper-middle-class residents filling up the townhouses springing up along the river. Land values stayed low as the waterfront remained dominated by slaughterhouses and industrial warehouses. The completion of Grand Central in the 1920s pushed corporate headquarters — including Pfizer and Phillip Morris — into Midtown, as executives and CEOs living in Westchester chose to open offices near the station rather than commute farther downtown.
The answer to these early years of “flight to the suburbs” arrived in the form of the most prominent buildings in the district: the Tudor City apartments, which began construction in the late 1920s and concluded in the early 1930s. NYC developer Fred French built 15 buildings, crafting a city within a city, complete with cleaners, a bar, groceries and restaurants to draw in families searching for a quieter community to raise children. Draper swears by the convenience of taking his kids Halloween trick-or-treating in just one apartment building here, in the sort of community where everyone knows each other to this day.
Windows were constructed almost exclusively facing inward, away from the sight and smell of the slaughterhouses that would meet their demise when John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought up the land and donated it for the construction of the UN headquarters at 46th Street and First Avenue. Today, owners are slowly knocking out new windows for future outer tenants to share a stunning river view with NYU campus buildings a few blocks over.
Behind these townhouses, individual gardens merging into larger community gardens became the norm.
Take Adelaide's exclusive listing property at 220 East 49th St. Priced at $10M and featuring 10 separate apartments, the building sits in front of the city's largest private garden. It is inspired by the very same one planted in 1919 by socialite Charlotte Sorchan — behind every single brownstone on East 49th — and tended over the years by the celebrity writers and Hollywood stars who would later inhabit the neighborhood.
While rents in the Tudor City area are fairly moderately priced — $2,500 to $2,800 for a studio and $3,000 to $3,500 for a one-bedroom — the winds are shifting. Part of the neighborhood’s relative affordability stems from a lack of immediate access to a subway stop.
The Jan. 1 opening of the Second Avenue subway’s first phase is already raising property values in the Upper East Side and the East End. Construction plans for Phase 3 are rolling in for the next decade. Once the stop opens on the corner of 49th Street, unstabilized rents are likely to skyrocket.
“It’s a timely opportunity to invest here,” Adelaide said.
This affordability translates into few to no retail vacancies on 2nd and 3rd avenues, with most spots filled with mom-and-pops. The blocks are flecked with locally owned wine stores, cleaners, shoe repair, pizza shops and boutiques servicing an immediate community defined by strong pedestrian traffic. The survival of favorite eateries such as P.J. Clarke’s, Draper said, were part of a bid by the Turtle Bay Association to keep the character of the block and prevent high-rises from blocking sunlight to the aforementioned community gardens.
“It’s a classic story of the owners not wanting to sell out, standing their ground," Draper said. "And to this day, the business is still around and thriving as a holdout."
Many of these buildings are structured to accommodate single-family-owner residences above ground-floor retail. One such quiet edifice is at 313 East 53rd St., which Polsinelli just placed on the market, spilling into the bustle of local saloons such as Blockhead and The Smith.
The property sits between a bakery and apartment building just blocks from the grate on Lexington and 53rd where Warner Brothers photographed Marilyn Monroe’s infamous skirt-blowing pose from "The Seven-Year Itch."
“Who says retail’s dead?" Adelaide said. "It’s alive and thriving. It just has to be in the right area, in the right space, with the right rent.”
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