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Neighborhoods New York Project – Tudor City

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The beauty of a travel project focusing on New York’s discrete neighborhoods is that some of these places are spots I’m going to be able to visit on lunch breaks. Assuming, that is, that there’s any real “there” there.

That’s what Tudor City seemed like on first blush. I’ve worked in a lot of places in East Midtown, and have long been familiar with the big “Tudor City” sign looming from the top of a skyscraper further east; I’d always figured it was more of the same nondescript skyscrapers-nestled-together blocks that seem to typify most of Midtown. A place where lots of people worked but nobody lived, so who cared what it looked like.

It is true that it’s a cluster of skyscrapers; but there’s a bit more to it than that. This was apparently the world’s first residential skyscraper development; nine residential towers and one hotel, built in the late 1920’s after the city cleared out a slum known as “Goat Hill”. But they couldn’t clean the area up completely – Tudor City is on a cliff overlooking a spot on the East River where a cluster of slaughterhouses perched on its shore. So most of Tudor City’s buildings face west, away from the river, and have few eastern windows. Twenty years later those slaughterhouses would be cleared away to build the United Nations ; so ironically, the residents with the best location for seeing the U.N. have no view of the U.N.

When the towers were built, though, developers tried to make the complex itself the attraction, trying to draw residents by evoking a more genteel, “Englishy” feel to the place. The buildings themselves all sport Gothic-y stonework and Tudor Rose emblems, with lots of leaded-panel stained glass windows on the ground floors and names like “Windsor Terrace” and “Bathwick Gardens”. The towers along the main “drag” in Tudor City – a two block stretch of street called “Tudor Place” – also have a handful of businesses in the ground floors, things like delis or Laundromats or pet supply stores; but they all have the same style sign, a sort of mock-Tudor shield thing hanging out over the sidewalk. Fortunately that’s the extent of “theme” detail in evidence today, so it doesn’t read like a “Merrie Olde England” exhibit at Epcot or anything.

And there are views of the U.N. from out on the street. The cliff where Tudor City is perched has been bisected by 42nd Street, and a bridge rejoins the two halves of the ‘hood. There’s a steel fence along the edge of the bridge, with a few benches scattered along its length for anyone wishing to sit and admire the U.N. Secretariat building. The day I visited I only saw a couple people taking in that particular view; a family of three, tween-age son posing with the U.N. in the background and grinning while Mom and Dad took his picture.

Instead, most people were in one of the tiny parks just across the street – tree-filled patches, scattered with some metal folding chairs and gravel paths and the odd fountain or two. This is where everyone seemed to be gathering – solitary workers on lunch breaks, a few clusters of suit-clad guys in ad hoc business lunches, one or two people camped out on one of the few benches with a takeout sandwich and a couple books, clearly dug in for a while. A sign by the front gate boasted that the grounds were maintained by the “Tudor City Greens” society, and a stack of cards advertised a sort of cabaret/show tunes/light jazz concert series in the evenings, but mostly the space was given over to people enjoying the shade and the cool breezes. I lingered a bit despite myself.

Strangely, for all the twee Tudor detailing on the buildings, that was the bit that felt most “English” to me – a garden in summer, a bit of shade, a breeze, a civilized picnic. I even remembered a similarly small vestpocket park I stumbled upon in London – it was tiny, but surprisingly deep, with lots of paths to get lost in and a bench to rest on a while. I sat in it for a full hour, waiting for some shop to open, surprised that all I could hear was just the gentle hum of some bees and some occasional music from someone or another’s flat nearby. And stepping back outside plunged me back onto the noise of Charing Cross Road again; but having sat here for a while, getting away from the noise, just felt very…civilized. And here was a taste of that same quiet, even with the FDR Drive and 42nd Street roaring by just a block away.

I finally wandered out right onto the corner of 42nd and the FDR Drive, bracing myself a moment against the noise before heading back to work.

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