A Brief History of the Turtle Bay Association and Its Work Over the Years
In 1957, a small group of New Yorkers living on East 49th Street 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: New York 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 in the fight against the City encouraged the group to take on other challenges in an effort 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.
Now more than six decades since its founding, the organization looks 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. Four local residents have chaired the organization since its founding:
- James Amster, an interior decorator whose home at Amster Yard became an anchor in the area
- Peter Detmold, whose real estate business specialized in East Midtown brownstones
- Bill Curtis, a graphic designer who first moved to Turtle Bay in the 1960s and led the organization from 1972 to 2020
- Dolores Marsh, a longtime resident and TBA activist who was named president on the retirement of Curtis in late 2020.
“The strong leadership of Amster, Detmold and Curtis have allowed us to maintain the influence we still have today,” Marsh observes. “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.”
The Turtle Bay Association counts the following among its most notable efforts over 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 the 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 establishment of 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.
- In the 1980s, the organization was instrumental in obtaining city approval of a plan that limited building heights in the area by the “downzoning” of the Beekman Place district and Turtle Bay mid-blocks between First and Third avenues. And during the same decade, it led a drive to redesign and refurbish Peter Detmold Park, located at 49th Street and the FDR Drive.
- During the 1990s, in a move to ease serious traffic congestion on First Avenue, the TBA fought for the reopening of the FDR Drive’s 48th Street ramp, which had been closed for temporary repairs and was being considered for permanent closure. And, in an important move to enhance the beauty of the neighborhood, the TBA 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 after a tragic crane collapse on East 51st Street in 2008 that killed seven, including six construction workers. And the organization has worked to assure adequate levels of city bus service for the neighborhood, improve the area’s parks and playgrounds, and has spoken up with its concerns regarding the city’s East Midtown rezoning plans and its effect on the residential nature of the area.
Today, as the neighborhood is seeing an influx of new residents, the Turtle Bay Association encourages all newcomers to join in the TBA’s cause. “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,” says Marsh.