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The Soul of New York in Turtle Bay Gardens

Twenty four-story townhouses make up one of the most beautiful residential complexes in New York City. It’s called the Turtle Bay Gardens, resting in the dead center between Third and Second Avenues, between East 48th and East 49th. While the street-facing views are nothing too thrilling save for a cute wrought-iron turtle ornament around the gate posts, the stuccoed interior facades form a beautiful garden courtyard, with balconies and porches looking out over winding paths, terra cotta sculptures, and dense vegetation.

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This little plot of green harkens back to the day when almost all of Turtle Bay was dense vegetation. Turtle Bay comes from a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal,” meaning a bent blade. Though it’s been landfilled in, a bent blade is as good a way as any to describe the bay’s slender, curved shape. The first white settlers of the land were two Englishmen who built a farm there in 1639. The land was granted to them by Willem Kieft, Director-General of the Dutch West India Company, though the Algonquian had been camping near Turtle Bay for centuries. This would not be the first time Kieft would anger the Algonquian over Turtle Bay. In 1641, a Swedish Turtle Bay publican named Claes Swits was killed by a Weckquaesgeek tribesman in retribution for the murder of the Weckquaesgeek’s uncle. Against the wishes of the council and the local colonists, Kieft retaliated with a series of attacks and massacres across New York and New Jersey, killing over 100 Native Americans in Pavonia, including women and children. The ensuing bloodshed back and forth would send settlers fleeing Manhattan in droves until Kieft was recalled in 1647 (he would die in a shipwreck on his way home) and replaced by Peter Stuyvesant.

Turtle Bay continued to evolve throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the sheltered bay becoming a haven for shipbuilders. (Robert Fulton would test his “folly,” the steamboat, here in 1808.) But the bay was eventually filled in by the end of the Civil War, and the shipbuilders were replaced by slaughterhouses and breweries. Tenement buildings were erected for poor New Yorkers who were moving uptown to escape the crowded and often dangerous life of the Lower East Side. It was around this time that the brownstones of Turtle Bay Gardens were built, though the courtyard would have been more swamp than garden. Turtle Bay Gardens was formed when Charlotte Hunnewell Sorchan purchased the entire block of town houses in 1920 and had architects Edward C. Dean and William L. Bottomley redesign the interior of the block to allow a beautiful communal garden to grow. The creation and beautification of Turtle Bay Gardens is often cited as a turning point in Turtle Bay’s history from affordable housing for immigrants to chic residences for New York’s upper crust. As just a few examples, famous residents have included Stephen Sondheim, Ruth Gordon, and Katherine Hepburn.

In the 1940’s, Turtle Bay Gardens’ most famous resident was author and essayist E.B. White. He was born in Mount Vernon, NY, but spent most of his life writing in Manhattan for the New Yorker. He started writing for the New Yorker the year it was founded, 1925, and continued for the next six decade. He had a reputation for being a quiet man (James Thurber once said he would habitually climb out of his office on the fire escape rather than deal with office visits), so the peace and quiet of Turtle Bay Gardens must have suited him perfectly.

Though you could make an argument for Charlotte’s Web, Trumpet of the Swan, or even The Elements of Style (depending on how anal-retentive you are), my favorite White book will always be his slim essay Here is New York. It was written in 1948, just as America transitioned from the actual horrors of World War II to the even greater potential horrors of the Atomic Age. It ends with an ode to a willow tree growing in the garden, a metaphor for the resiliency of New York City.

“A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the plans, I think: ‘This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.’ If it were to go, all would go–this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.”

But in 2009, the tree had been rotted through from the inside and was chopped down. There was a small ceremony held at sunset. Fortunately, several clippings were taken from the tree by Bill Logan of Urban Arborists in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Today, the children of E.B. White’s willow have grown over 30 feet tall and will eventually be planted in parks across New York City.

 

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