Close-Up on Murray Hill

"People who don't live around here who sit down at the bar sometimes turn to me and say, 'What the hell am I doing in Murray Hill?' " says Jay Seals, leaning against the bar he tends at Third and Long (523 Third Avenue, 212-447-5711). In this Irish pub—west of Kips Bay, north of Gramercy, and tucked in an oft forgotten corner of the area vaguely known as midtown—Murray Hill is viewed as unwaveringly unhip. It has next-to-no public spaces for lingering and is dominated architecturally by office towers and multi-family dwellings. In a word, boring. "But, you know," Seals continues, lowering his voice, "I kinda like it here."

If we can associate the neighborhoods of Manhattan with personas, the meatpacking district may be a swank young debutante and Central Park South an investment-banker uncle. Murray Hill is the granny. She's quiet but endearing; you wouldn't want to spend Friday night with her, but she has frequent gems of wisdom and history to offer.

One story to latch onto is that of the area's namesake, the Murray family. They were Quakers who settled and farmed the land that now stretches from 33rd to 39th streets east of Madison Avenue. Somehow, the name persevered despite the exile of a prominent son and the leveling of the family hill.

Well-to-do brownstones in Murray Hill
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Well-to-do brownstones in Murray Hill

Today, a gradual stream of young professionals are snatching up apartments in the brownstones that line the East 30s and co-ops in apartment buildings closer to the river and the 40s. Real estate is more reasonably priced than anywhere else on the island south of Harlem; and being that everywhere in the neighborhood is a short walk from Fifth Avenue and Grand Central, it's as sure as any investment. Perhaps Murray Hill will never see meatpacking days, but need it? A gradual evolution is underway, with new apartment towers in construction on 34th Street and the restaurant and bar scene on Third Avenue becoming spicier with each liquor license issued.

Boundaries: 42nd Street to the north, 27th Street to the south, and Fifth Avenue to the west. Some stretch Murray Hill's eastern boundary all the way to the East River, but historians generally place it between Third and Second avenues, which allows for Kips Bay and Tudor City to remain distinct waterfront neighborhoods. Real estate agents occasionally stretch the southern boundary to 23rd, to eliminate a gap between Murray Hill and Gramercy; "What the heck else are you supposed to call it?" asks Daniel Levy, president of City Realty.

Transportation: The Lexington lines (the 4, 5, or 6) are the only subway trains that cut through Murray Hill. The 5 and 6 lines make two local stops on Park Avenue and the 4 makes an express stop at Grand Central. The 7 crosstown train traces 42nd Street along the neighborhood's northern boundary and brings Queens residents to Grand Central in 10 minutes from Astoria. Several city bus lines serve the area, most notably the crosstown M16 and M104 (via 34th and 42nd streets, respectively).

Main Drags: Park Avenue brings heavy two-way traffic through the area, but Third Avenue has more delis, bars, and shops. East to west, 34th and 42nd are the grandest and busiest streets.

Average Price to Rent: Eastern Murray Hill holds some of the best rental deals in Manhattan—even though it is within walking distance of Grand Central Station. "You can get good value in Murray Hill," says Levy. Studios are rarely available but would rent for $1,400 to $2,000; a one-bedroom runs between $1,800 and $2,500; a two-bedroom is $2,500 to $4,500; and a three-bedroom ranges from $3,200 to $6,000.

Average Price to Buy: Most of the beautiful brownstones in the lower 30s are being held by the well-to-do families that have owned them for decades. But there are plenty of co-op spaces turning over continuously. According to Brown Harris Stevens, a Manhattan real estate firm, condo prices in Midtown East rose 26 percent from last year to an average price of $836 per square foot. Condos are more rare and coveted (and thus more expensive) than co-ops, which comprise 80 percent of City Realty's sales. Pre-war co-ops are approximately $172,000 per room, and a post-war is priced just slightly less than average.

Museums, Attractions, and Landmarks: The Morgan Library and Sniffen Court carriage houses on 36th Street are architectural tour stops. And the Gilbert-designed Beaux Arts mansion is as lovely a structural design (though not as, well, grand) as Grand Central Station. Whether for use or touring, the New York Public Library brings many guests to Murray Hill, as does the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (though the constant traffic and noise are not so welcomed by residents).

Shops: Boutiques are springing up along Third Avenue, but for major label shopping, head west toward Grand Central or Herald Square. A few well-stocked Indian spice markets are to the south, in the "curry hill" area of Lexington.

Cultural Institutions: Although nearly void of movie theaters, Murray Hill holds a handful of performance spaces with diverse calendars. The New York Art Theatre on Park Avenue, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater on 33rd, and the Jewish Repertory Theater on 40th are a few.

Green Space: A couple of scraggly, concrete-rooted trees deck office fronts along Lex and Third, but they only serve to highlight the fact that Murray Hill is a lot of gray and very little green. Midtown South in general is bleakly vacant of park space, which might explain the elaborate window box displays along the brownstone rows in the East 30s.

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