Some 60 years ago this fall, a small group of East 49th Street residents got together at Amster Yard, located between Second and Third avenues, to strategize on how they could scuttle a city plan they deemed harmful to the neighborhood. They gave themselves a name – the East 49th Street Association – and after some long, thoughtful strategy sessions, they went on to win their battle: The city halted its plan to broaden 49th Street to make way for more automobile traffic, which would have meant narrowing the sidewalks and uprooting well-established shade trees in the process.
Their success encouraged the group to take on other fights to preserve the neighborliness of the East Midtown area, and before long, residents from blocks north and south of 49th Street had joined the cause. Soon, the designation of “49th Street” no longer seemed appropriate, and the group changed its name to the Turtle Bay Association.
This fall, as the organization marks its 60th anniversary, it can look back with pride at some hard-fought struggles to maintain the area’s residential appeal, a major challenge for a neighborhood located between the United Nations’ six-block complex on one side and the office towers of Third Avenue on the other. Three men have chaired the organization since its founding: James Amster, an interior decorator whose home at Amster Yard became an anchor in the area; then Peter Detmold, whose real estate business specialized in East Midtown brownstones; and since 1972, Bill Curtis, a graphic designer who first moved to Turtle Bay in the 1960s. “The strong leadership of Amster and Detmold during our early years has helped us maintain the influence we still have today,” says Curtis. “The issues may be different, but our goal is the same – to maintain the livability of our East Midtown neighborhood for future generations to come.”
Here are some of the TBA’s most notable efforts through the years:
- In the mid-1960s, the group fought to stop the building of a big municipal parking garage on 48th Street and Second Avenue, and successfully worked to minimize a mammoth expansion of UN and affiliated offices that would have taken over residential areas.
- In the 1970s, in what many consider one of the TBA’s greatest achievements, neighbors stopped a huge Long Island Rail Road passenger terminal planned for the northwest corner of 48th Street and Third Avenue. And the group fought to keep helicopter service—noisy and potentially dangerous—from continuing atop the nearby Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building).
- In the 1980s, the organization was instrumental in the successful effort to limit the building heights in the area by “downzoning” the Beekman Place district and Turtle Bay mid-blocks between First and Third avenues. And it also led the drive to redesign and refurbish Peter Detmold Park.
- In the 1990s, the TBA fought for the reopening of the 48th Street ramp to the FDR Drive, easing traffic on First Avenue. And, in an important move to enhance the neighborhood, it spearheaded the rejuvenation of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and the opening of the Katherine Hepburn Garden.
- More recently, the TBA has been an active voice in monitoring safety issues surrounding high-rise construction in the area, a particular concern in light of a tragic crane collapse on East 51st Street in 2008 that killed seven, including six construction workers, and injured many more. And the organization has worked to assure adequate levels of bus service for the neighborhood, improve the area’s parks and playgrounds, and most recently, has spoken up with its concerns regarding the city’s East Midtown rezoning plans.
“As we enter our seventh decade, we hope some of our past achievements will encourage newcomers in our neighborhood to join our cause,” says Curtis. “The more voices we have speaking up about our concerns, the more effective we can be in assuring that Turtle Bay remains a quality place to live and work.”