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AM New York

City Living Turtle Bay

By Lana Bortolot
Special to amNewYork

Photos: RJ Mickelson

As far as star quality goes, Turtle Bay has had a distinguished run. Katharine Hepburn, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Cronkite, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and Efrem Zimbalist are among the many celebrity residents who have enjoyed the neighborhood’s quiet charms. But in recent years, Turtle Bay has emerged from its shell to become one of the city’s more desired enclaves for young professionals and families—an evolution that’s infused and challenged a neighborhood faced with fast development.

“The real story these days is how the neighborhood has changed—it’s really a generational shift,” says Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s borough historian and a longtime Turtle Bay resident. “This had been a mature, sleepy place to live, but a younger element has replaced the older demographic and made it a lot more active than it used to be.”

Newcomers to Turtle Bay will find a neighborhood with fierce pride of place. Residents lay claim to one of the most sophisticated and diverse communities — due to the proximity of the United Nations, and historic tracts have been kept largely intact, thanks to a long history of local activism.

“There’s always been some action to keep the balance in Turtle Bay,” says Lou Sepersky, a member of Community Board 6, which serves the area. “It’s not an anti-development community, but there is an awareness that there’s a line between too much and not enough.”

Out-of-scale development is a growing concern for residents, as is the preservation of the local businesses that give the neighborhood its appeal.

“My concern is that more chains are moving in, and there are no new small businesses,” says Community Board 6 chairman Lyle Frank, adding he’d like to see “one less bank or Duane Reade and one more cupcake cafe.”

Turtle Bay native Steve Corvi has owned Turtle Bay Chemist for 27 years and says his business thrives on neighborhood stability. “There are a lot of long-time residents here, people I know on a first-name basis, who depend on our service.” He added, “We’ve been here a long time and there are no plans to change that.”


Turtle Bay is bounded by 43rd Street to the south, 51st Street to the north, Lexington Avenue to the west and the East River to the east.


Subway: Nos. 4 and 5 to Grand Central; No. 6 at 51st Street; and the E or V at 53rd Street.

Bus: M101, M102 and M103 on Lexington and Third avenues; M15 on First and Second avenues; M42 on 42nd Street; M27 and M50 on 49th and 50th streets.

Libraries: Turtle Bay does not have a branch of the New York Public Library, but residents are not far from mid-Manhattan Library 455 Fifth Ave. 212-340-0863
and the main library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street 917-275-6975.

Community Board: CB6, 212-319-3750;

Police: 17th Precinct, 167 E. 51st St., 212-826-3211

Fire Dept.: Firehouse Engine 21, 238 E. 40th St.

Crime: For the year to date, the precinct reports one murder, seven rapes, 68 robberies, 61 felony assaults, 127 burglaries and 702 grand larcenies. For the same period in 2007: one murder, five rapes, 69 robberies, 59 felony assaults, 113 burglaries and 739 grand larcenies

Schools: Turtle Bay is served by two public schools: P.S. 59 Beekman Hill International elementary school (228 E. 57th St.), and the Art and Design High School (1075 Second Ave.). The Family School, a private K-6, is located at 323 E. 47th St.

The renowned Turtle Bay Music School (244 E. 52nd St.) has a tuition-based partnership with a limited number of public schools (K-6).


Take a tour of the United Nations. Ignore the throngs of tourists: Standing in the swooping lobby of the UN, a time capsule of 1950s architecture, still thrills. (Being among polyglots and speaking one language humbles.) Go for the guided weekday tours, conducted every 45 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and which include artworks and historic rooms such as the General Assembly (limited access on weekends).
41st Street and First Avenue. Tour info: 212-963-8687.


1.) Turtle Bay most likely derives its name not from a proliferation of turtles, but from the Dutch word, deutal (“bent blade”), describing the curve of the bay.

2.) A masterwork in the International Modernist style, The Kaufman Conference Center at the United Nations is the only work in New York City designed by Finnish architect Aalto Alvar.

3.) The iron-wrought fence work outside the townhouses at 232-248 E. 49th St. features large turtles in its ornament. Stephen Sondheim lives behind the turtle-adorned fence, as did Katharine Hepburn.

4.) Amster Yard, an oasis on 49th Street between Second and Third avenues, was said to be the terminal stop for the Boston Stage Coach on the Eastern Post Road.

5.) It is long-rumored but not confirmed that Revolutionary hero Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Turtle Bay.

6.) Since the early 1980s, residents have played a giant outdoor chess game at 767 Third Ave. The public art installation is a game in progress—one move away from checkmate. Every two weeks, people may submit their prediction for the move to checkmate and win the game.


The United Nations may draw top billing, but Turtle Bay is blessed with cultural organizations that give this neighborhood a rich diversity on a smaller scale.

Kabbalah Centre
155 E. 48th St., 212-644-0025
Sure, it has a celebrity following — Madge and her now-estranged husband among the drop-ins — but long before Hollywood made the red string a fashion statement, New Yorkers came here for spiritual guidance, classes and transformative fellowship.

Instituto Cervantes, The Spanish Cultural Center of New York
211 E. 49th St., 212-308-7720
Tucked away in the historic Amster Yard, the institute offers a robust cultural program including language classes at all levels, films, art exhibitions, gastronomy and wine-tasting seminars.

The Japan Society
333 E. 47th St., 212-832-1155
The 101-year-old society presents the culture and arts of Japan through world-class exhibitions, symposia, film screenings, and traditional and cutting–edge performing arts. Indoor gardens transport visitors to the Far East.

Daj Hammarskjold Plaza
Second Avenue and 47th Street
This quiet plaza, an alley of leafy trees on one side, has all the civility of an intimate Parisian park. The Katharine Hepburn Garden winds down one side, occasionally interrupted by gazebos and fountains. On Wednesdays, a farmer’s market offers a peaceable solution to Union Square. The New York Milkshake Company operates a concession here with seasonal patio seating.

Greenacre Park
East 51st Street between Second and Third avenues
Leafy plantings among the terraced rocks make this vest-pocket park a local treasure. Fans of the much-loved and oft-crowded Paley Park can come here for the same mesmerizing waterfalls and Bertoia chairs, and escape the distractions of urban life for a while. Closed in winter.


Though the old guard steakhouses have been firmly planted in Turtle Bay for years, there’s plenty of room — and appetite — for a new crop of international cuisines that reflect the neighborhood’s diversity.

Ali Baba’s Terrace
862 Second Ave., 212-888-8622
The new outpost of the reliable 34th Street restaurant offers traditional Turkish kebabs, grills and stews. Grilled lamb is the specialty — choose from 10 preparations — but chicken and seafood eaters will be well-served here, too. Ideal for sharing: platters of cold and hot mezze, with olive oil as the star.

230 E. 51st St., 212-758-6633
This classic French brasserie and neighborhood hangout has all the atmosphere of downtown bistros without the terminal hip factor. The coq au vin is the must-have dish here, but the steak frites is perfectly turned-out, too.

Oms/b Rice Ball Café
156 E. 45th St., 212-922-9788
This tiny cafe specializing in omusubi, rice balls stuffed with salmon, tuna, shrimp, crab and the like, is the first and only eatery of its kind. The pieces average $2.50, so you can stuff yourself with samples, even in a down economy.

209 E. 49th St., 212-751-4545
Forget about the nachos and salsa and head here for modern, fresh coastal-Mexican food. The elegant dishes rely on fresh ingredients and side salads such as baby cactus and prickly pear. Order stand-alone ceviche dishes or create your own samplings from the tastings menu. Around the corner, 805 Third Ave., the same kitchen serves tasty tacos from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Smörgas chef
924 Second Ave., 212-486-1411
If you’ve ever wondered what the Swedish eat beside meatballs, step inside this three-year-old café and sample some Scandinavian fare. Expect the typical North Sea cod, gravlaks and other salmon dishes, but be surprised at hearty platters such as grilled rack of lamb and pan-seared duck. And the meatballs are better than Ikea’s.

953 Second Ave., 212-644-6740
If you do crave the sauce and chips, settle down beneath the Mexican artifacts and paper garlands fluttering from the ceiling, with a platter of authentic Mexican regional cooking at this brightly colored cantina. Critics recommend the poblanos rellenos, snapper hash, or slow-cooked Oaxacan lamb—not to mention the power margaritas.


You can’t go nary a block without finding an Irish-themed watering hole, but even in this pub-packed enclave, you can find a variety of friendly places to sidle up to the bar and take in the local color.

Pig ‘n’ Whistle on 2nd
951 Second Ave., 212-832-2021
This eastern outpost of the Times Square original has the usual Shepherd’s Pie (recommended) but also a surprisingly diverse tapas menu, Irish-style. You won’t find chorizo and grilled octopus, but if burger and pig sliders appeal, come chow down.

727 Third Ave., 212-661-3530
Recipient of the James Joyce Pub Award for its authenticity, O”Neill’s features better-than-average bar munchies, a traditional menu and live Irish music on Saturday and Sunday nights. It’s ranked high for its neighborhood appeal and friendly staff.

Turtle Bay Bar and Grill
987 Second Ave., 212-223-4224
You can come to this neighborhood mainstay for the contemporary American comfort food — but it’s the bar scene that makes you feel at home. Young professionals, frat boys and “It girls” with a few old-timers nestled in between make up the crowd — but not a tourist in site.

Top of the Tower
Three Mitchell Place, 212-224-0920
Sip a cocktail and enjoy the 360-degree view from the top of the landmarked Art Deco Beekman Tower. American favorites such as duckling and roasted chicken breast rule the rather traditional menu. but if you’re really only here for the view and a cocktail, try a thin-crust pizza. Service is available on the outside terrace while the weather holds.

Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in Turtle Bay is a popular place to relax in the midtown.


National retail brands comprise most of the shopping along Second and Third avenues. The most inspired points of purchase are in unlikely places. Seek them out.

United Nations Gift Shops
UN Plaza, 41st Street and First Avenue
The basement level of the UN houses a number of shops, several of which support good causes across the globe such as UNICEF. There’s a serious bookstore for policy wonks, but also stores with UN-branded merchandise, socially conscious gifts and toys, indigenous crafts from specialty co-ops. You can also create personalized postage stamps (but only for mailing from the UN).

Catalyst Books
815 Second Ave., 212-716-6117
Operated by the Episcopal Diocese, the books here focus on spirituality, theology, peace and justice, and women’s studies. Gifts include sacred music, stationery, painted ornaments from Eastern Europe, free-trade crafts and ecumenical items. Cafe to open soon in the adjoining space.

Dailchi Arts
249 E. 48th St., 212-230-1680
Tucked under the trees is this jewel box of a gallery featuring museum-quality Japanese ceramics and sculptures. Sleek and simple objet for table tops, the modern curio shelf and larger display spaces. Open Tuesday-Saturday.

The Health Nuts
837 Second Ave., 212-490-2979
A well-stocked grocery and natural foods store with unusual homeopathic and health-care brands. Freshly prepared hot and cold foods for takeout includes soups, sandwiches, wraps and curry-infused stews.

Japan Society Gift Shop
333 E. 47th St., 212-715-1282
This tranquil boutique is an homage to traditional and contemporary design. You can find more than just sake sets here: The shop features furniture from the Nakashima workshop, vintage lacquer ware, Oribe pottery, prints and books on Japanese design, cooking and travel.


Known for having some of the most expensive housing in the city, Turtle Bay, in recent years, has become more affordable for young professionals and families. But, if you want to live like a millionaire, there is plenty of opportunity to do so here.

To Buy
Brand-new four-bedroom, five-bath postwar condo in The Veneto. 2,882 square feet, luxury finishes. $5,999,000, 250 E. 53rd St. (Jacky Teplitzky, Prudential Douglas Elliman, 212-891-7743)

Two-bedroom, two-bath loft-like condo in renovated brownstone cluster. 1,713 square feet, plus private outdoor area. $2,125,000. 345 E. 50th St. (Jacky Teplitzky,Prudential Douglas Elliman, 212-891-7743)

Corner one-bedroom co-op in a prewar doorman building. 900-plus-square feet, wood-burning fireplace, $695,000. 414 E. 52nd St. (New York Private Realty Group, David J. Larijani, 646-502-8975)

For Rent
Two-bedroom, two-bath condo in full-service luxury building. Marble baths, rooftop deck. $4,700 a month. 236 E. 47th St. (Halstead Property, Antonio Hamimi, 646-526-8228).

Duplex apartment in townhouse. Three fireplaces, formal dining room, three-level private garden. 309 E. 52nd St. $5,000 (CitiHabitats, Gia Williams, 646-648 9340_

600-square-foot, newly renovated junior one-bedroom apartment with designer features in luxury doorman building. $2,500 a month. 321 E. 48th St. (JH Living, Daniel Kempler, 917.363.8192).


The Turtle Bay community was devastated earlier this year by the deadly collapse of a crane on 51st Street and Second Avenue, which renewed concerns about the pace and safety of high-rise construction in the neighborhood. There has been a stop work order on the site while the developer revises plans, but it will take more than a Department of Buildings permit to resume work. The developer has been meeting with elected officials and community leaders to address local concerns.

The developer “wants to try to get a resolution that gives respect to what the community desires,” said Assemb. Jonathan Bing (D-Manhattan), who represents Turtle Bay. “No plans have been filed, nothing is pending approval, he’s just talking at the community level.”

Bing, who with his wife and toddler lives three blocks from the site of the accident, said the developer is willing to build 10 fewer stories than originally planned.

“No matter what is built here there’s going to be trepidation among the community, but I think [that the] the developer [is] willing to build a smaller building is a positive step.”


Pamela Hanlon is an author and Turtle Bay resident. She is the author of “Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.”

What attracts people to Turtle Bay?
The convenience of living close to midtown’s business district, yet in a neighborhood that retains a special character, with its blocks of old 19th-century brownstones; its proximity to the United Nations and the international quality that brings with it; and its waterfront location on the East River.

What deters people from moving here?
Some may think the area is too close to the central hub of the city. Yet, once here, many are surprised to find that Turtle Bay retains a kind of “small town” feel despite being, literally, in the heart of Manhattan.

If I had a few hours to visit your neighborhood, what should I do?
I would start at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and while there, visit Katharine Hepburn Garden—named for the actress who lived in Turtle Bay most of her life. Then walk along some of the brownstone-lined streets, including 49th Street, where you can visit Amster Yard’s lovely courtyard. Also, walk along Beekman Place, a quiet residential enclave that hugs the East River. And perhaps end up at Greenacre Park on 51st Street.

Where is the neighborhood going?
Many new high-rise apartment buildings are being built along the First and Second avenues, bringing new residents to the area—often young families with children. So Turtle Bay is becoming a younger neighborhood than in the past.

What are residents concerned about?
At the moment, many in the neighborhood worry about too much construction under way at the same time. Yet, when these buildings—virtually all are apartment buildings—are completed, we can look forward to new businesses, restaurants and other amenities that the new residents will undoubtedly attract.

What should remain the same?
Turtle Bay's charm and small-town character, preserved over the years by landmark status given to many sites, along with changes in zoning regulations so that high rises are prohibited on most of Turtle Bay's cross streets.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008