You should write about that. Mary, you should REALLY write about that!
As Will and I organized our move to Murray Hill NYC, my good friends kept saying it. You should write about that.
Somewhere in the cobwebbed recesses of my mind, thoughts began to stir and ideas began to form.
After all, The Curious Cowgirl began in 2018 as a Travel Blog. I’ve published hundreds of travel-related posts, and NYC has always been a favorite topic. 2020 caused several pivots and an expansion of The Curious Cowgirl to include a focus on my antique business and my needlepoint-related business, and as of May 2023, I had not written a single travel piece in over thirteen months. I hoped muscle memory was truly a thing, and I began to contemplate what an ongoing written documentary of what’s it like to live part of the year in NYC could be. Would be. Is going to be.
Would I talk about NYC Neighborhoods. Yes. Specifically, Murray Hill NYC, also yes. Would there be tidbits of New York City History thrown in for good measure. Obviously yes.
Would the goal be to teach, to direct, to inform, to enlighten. Possible by-products.
My main goal would be…simply to write. To document. And if anyone finds my efforts instructive, informative or enlightening….dare I say entertaining….that’s good too.
Cue the sound of cracking knuckles as I force the writing cogs in my brain to move again.
“Notes From the Hill”
Any Little Mouse Hole
In 1981, my husband Will visited his cousin Amy Lewis Walton, who was living in Brooklyn while she attended Pratt. A short stay became an extended stay, which became frequent visits to New York City. Will fully enjoyed everything NYC had to offer in the 80’s, including some of the more infamous night clubs like The Mud Club and The Tunnel (and for those of you who are familiar….Will has over thirty years sobriety now and lucky to have survived those crazy times.) But the point I’m trying to make is, Will began dreaming of having a place in any one of the NYC Neighborhoods way back then.
Truth be told, his love of NYC began when he was a kid. You are not going to believe this story….
In 1975, when Will was 15, he visited New York with his mother, his grandmother and other family members. Will was a collector from a very early age, and his first category of obsessive gathering was militaria. He saw an ad in Civil War Times, one of the many specifically obscure publications to which Will subscribed, The ad mentioned Jack Jacobson’s Catalog of militaria For Sale, and of course Will ordered a catalog, highlighting all the militaria Mr. Jacobson had available.
With a wad of bills in his pocket from selling raccoon pelts at an East Texas Flea Market (he also subscribed to Full Cry, American Cooner, and was a member of the Smith County Coon Hunting Association….Most of the messages in his high school Freshman yearbook included wishes for Will to enjoy his summer of coon hunting, but I digress), Will arrived in Manhattan with a plan.
Without a cell phone. Without background checks or even a note left on the desk of his hotel room, Will took a subway to Battery Park. He boarded the Staten Island Ferry, and upon arrival, took a bus to a Bodega. The Bodega owner called Mr. Jacobson, who came and picked Will up on the corner. The two rode together to the Dealer’s home, and spent a few hours in the basement, as Will looked through piles of World War I uniforms, photography and other miscellaneous military items, selecting a few treasures to take back to Dallas. Having successfully avoided being chopped up into tiny pieces, or locked in a cage (my mind literally REELS when I think about all the gruesome possibilities), he reversed the process, arriving safely back at the hotel several hours later, purchases in hand.
Can you imagine?
I share that story, because Will’s love of New York City began at a very young age. And so, when we started dating in 2009, it was pivotal to the success of our relationship that I love New York City as well.
That was never a question.
For almost 14 years, Will and I have travelled to NYC several times annually. And, as many of us do while “on vacation”, we imagined what it would be like to have a place in The City.
For years, as we walked the streets of almost every NYC neighborhood, we quoted Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, known notably from the documentary Grey Gardens, by repeating one of her more famous lines, “It’s very depressing, you know, when winter sets in here. You know, cause I don’t like the country and I don’t want to be here. Any little rat – any little rat’s nest in New York, any little mouse hole, any little rat hole, even on 10th Avenue – I would like better.”
In March of 2023, Will and I found our perfect Mouse Hole among all the NYC Neighborhoods. In Murray Hill.
The Wrong Side of the MET Life Building
Every town, city, hamlet or metropolis has a “right side of the tracks and a wrong side of the tracks”. I don’t care where you live. That’s a fact.
But the knife can cut both ways (if you will indulge me a second analogy).
I’ll never forget the first time I discovered I lived on the WRONG side of the tracks.
In my 20’s, I joined a volunteer organization in Dallas. Each year, we participated in different activities, some serving the community directly, and others within the organization. One year, my volunteer assignment was to help new members get aquatinted with each other during a short 24 hour retreat.
The newbies participated in all kinds of “ice breakers” and games. And I assisted with facilitation. In the evening, the retreat leaders….retreated…to our own space, so we could catch our breath and prepare for the next day.
The gal in charge, let’s call her Nancy, knew all the leaders except me. So, she began peppering me with all kinds of questions. “Remind me your last name. Who are you married to. Where did you grow up. Where do you live.”
I don’t intimidate or rattle easily, so I took the Third Degree in stride.
Now, regarding where I’m from and where I lived at the time….the answer was the same. My ex-husband and I worked REALLY hard, and saved enough money to buy our first home in the same neighborhood where I grew up. From our perspective, one of the decidedly “right side of the tracks” parts of Dallas.
But in the eyes of Nancy, I lived in the VERY wrong side of the tracks. In fact, she began to explain to me, that we should do everything we could to move to the even BETTER right side of the right side of the tracks, because “no one who has EVER graduated from [the local high school], and attend [the elementary school in my part of the wrong side of the right side of the tracks], ever amounted to anything in high school. No one.”
I was stunned. There are five elementary schools that matriculate into one middle school and then one high school. So the kids are all headed to the same destination past elementary school.
Also, Nancy was not from Dallas. She did not grow up in Dallas. But based on her 20 post-college years in Dallas, she had evidently conducted a thorough analysis of each graduating class of our local high school, identified where each person attended elementary school, correlated that list with her list of acceptable high school achievements and related groups, thereby producing a definitive algorithmic predictor of success based on where each student spent years Kindergarten through 5th Grade.
All I could do was blink at her. I was stunned. I had no words. Until I had words.
“Nancy. I attend [the wrong elementary school], to which you refer. When I graduated from [the local high school], I took a great deal of pride in having friends from many different groups, and so I had an awareness, and even, I dare say, a deep appreciation for classmates of mine who were not a part of my immediate friend group. And just as a point of reference for you, I was the Editor of the Yearbook and the Chaplain of my Drill Team. Our Homecoming Queen, one of the Captains of the Football Team, Captain of the Wrestling Team, Track Team, Tennis Team and Salutatorian, all attended with me [the wrong elementary school on the right side of the tracks.]
Furthermore, beyond high school graduation, which many see as a jumping off point, not a final destination, we have among our ranks an Olympic Medalist, a senior Nurse with Doctors without Borders, a nationally recognized Opera Singer, and I’m sure some other really cool people without huge public success but amazing depth of character that I have not had the chance to get reacquainted with yet, because we have not even had our ten-year-reunion.
So from where I stand, and where I stood in the late 80’s, I feel pretty good about purchasing our home on our side of the tracks.”
(Just as a side-note…I am SO much more articulate and quippy in my retelling of my retort some 25 years later than I probably was in the moment, but I must have had some kind of zippy response, because it took me a long time to ever get picked for a “leadership role” again.)
So….yeah….I guess the right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks is pretty damn relative.
My point…is that our apartment in New York is on the wrong side of the tracks. Or, at least the wrong side of the MET Life Building, according to a lady Will and I met in the elevator on our second day of apartment dwelling.
She announced her truth (as the kids like to say these days) in a brief elevator ride to our floor, in a very apologetic tone, and wistfully told us she grew up on the Upper East Side….”you know…closer to the 80’s”.
Well, no, new neighbor, I actually DON’T know. Because I’m not FROM here. I don’t have the same sense of history, and change, and all the emotions and opinions that come from watching your city grow, expand, contract, drag, soar, and evolve. All the things a city does over time.
I have that sense about Dallas. Because I’m FROM there. But I’m not FROM here.
But rather than dismiss her judgement, I did a little research. Because, her sense of the right side and the wrong side of the MET Life Building comes from somewhere……
According to the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, Murray Hill is a Manhattan neighborhood which has a history that extends back in time to the 18th century. It is named after the first family who lived in the area.
Robert and Mary Murray were Quakers who established their home and family in Manhattan. Their physical house, named Belmont, was, at the time, built on a hill which became popularly known as Murray Hill.
The land was not far removed from the wilderness in 1753, the year Robert Murray moved to New York City from Pennsylvania. His primary home was near what is now Wall Street, and he also purchased a large tract for a country estate.
New York City proper in those days was confined to the southern tip of Manhattan. Manhattan was settled essentially from the southern end, moving “up” over the years. So, owning a “country estate” so close to the wilderness of undeveloped Manhattan was not common. Dare we say…wrong side of the tracks? I guess it depends on whether you enjoy country life or not.
Although they were Quakers, the Murrays also upheld the traditions of wealthy New York society. They entertained frequently at their country home, present day Murray Hill, where George Washington and other prominent Americans were guests.
There’s a bronze plaque in the parkway at the corner of 37th and Park Avenue, dedicated to Mary Murray and a most famous “party” she hosted during the early days of the Revolutionary War.
In September 1776, the British landed 4,000 troops at Kips Bay (another of the present-day NYC Neighborhoods), causing the colonial troops under the command of General Putnam and Aaron Burr to scatter northwest in a disorderly retreat. British troops followed close behind.
According to legend, Mary Murray invited the British commander General Sir William Howe and his men to rest at Belmont and enjoy a pot of tea and a glass of Madeira wine. Their time spent in the company of Mrs. Murray and her charming daughters allowed the Americans to escape. The next day, they would triumph over the British in the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Returning to my new neighbor’s comment….being on “the wrong side of the MET Life Building” is truly relative.
In 1776, it’s arguably a good thing that the Murray’s established their country home here, else a few colonists might not have lived to see another day.
And while the MET Life building would not be constructed for another 187 years (it was completed in 1963 as the Pan Am Building), Mary and John Murray, and their descendants, had a profound effect on the development of what is now Murray Hill, and preservation of some of its most iconic elements and homes.
To be detailed in the future….
So, once again, from where I sit, in one of my favorite NYC Neighborhoods, I’m pleased as punch to set up camp on the wrong side of the tracks, on this side of the MET Life Building.
And as we Mary’s know…at the end of the day, a welcome mat and a great glass of wine can make all the difference.
Kathy and Marty
White Bryant Park is the closest park space to our apartment, Will and I enjoy walking down to Madison Square Park. It’s more intimate. A lot quieter. And is close to the grocery store we like, so we can read a little, people watch a little, and grab a fresh milk, basically all at the same time.
Throughout the NYC park system, you will notice that many park benches have a memorial plaque attached to them.
A few days ago, Will and I wrapped up an hour or so of reading at Madison Square Park, and I noticed the plaque on the back of the bench. It read:
Kathy and Marty
New Yorkers through and through.
She was born to it & he rushed into it.
If ever there was a thought-provoking plaque, this was certainly one to ponder!
Can you truly “rush into” something, and become absolutely authentic, through and through?
Let me tackle this question from an accessible vantage point, at least to me.
Will and I are Texans through and through. We were both born to it. Many generations back, in fact. We KNOW we are Texans. Don’t even have to think on that for one moment.
But something we have noticed….our neighborhood in Dallas, and Dallas more broadly and even the State of Texas, is becoming increasingly populated with people who are not FROM Texas. Not a newsworthy observation. I’ll admit.
For a period of time, there was a columnist in our local paper who was not FROM Dallas, and mentioned that she and all the other people who were not FROM Dallas were annoyed by those of us who grew up in Dallas saying things like, “Remember when the CVS was M.E. Moses? I loved Moses!” or “Remember when the tornado touched down in Curtis Park? We watched it from our classroom windows at University Park Elementary School!” or “You live at 2804 Hanover? My childhood best friend lived there….of course their house is long gone.” Comments like those rubbed this columnist and some of our neighbors, the wrong way.
Being the Libra that I am, I often try to put myself into the shoes of others, and see their point of view. And I think about those irritated folks. I’m sure many of them have lived in Dallas for 20+ years. People my age who possibly attended SMU and then stuck around. Or got their first job in Dallas and never left. I can see how, after living in a place for a decently long period of time, a Decade or more, you would feel like Marty from the park bench. They felt they had rushed into it, and became Dallascites through and through.
So then I think about New York City, where I am only deeply experiencing one of the five boroughs on a daily basis. Each borough has its own story. And within each borough, each neighborhood has its own story.
I do love that the internet provides amazing information about the history of almost every single address in Murray Hill, or any other neighborhood for that matter. From brownstones and townhouses to apartments buildings and office buildings. See an interesting doorway, or a tall building that has gorgeous architectural detail if you bend your head back and look way up? Simply Google that address, and I bet you will find information about what a building WAS and what it IS.
And I certainly appreciate the difference between knowing who lived in a house in Dallas in 1970 and who lives there now, and what a building was in 1860 and what it is now…..but I think rushing into a place requires the same introspection, curiosity and a certain degree of respect.
Rushing INTO a place, as Will and I have been doing together since 2009, requires patience in order to gain thoroughness.
The luxury of having an apartment, we have found, is the ability to really slow down our days, and take in sites and details that we simply did not have time for in the past. I can take an hour, and walk just one or two blocks in my neighborhood. I can Google addresses, read several related articles. I can search out books written about Murray Hill, and Manhattan more broadly, read them, and then go search out the places I’ve read about.
Throw a dart at the map, dig in and rush into it.
Eventually, I think, we will be New Yorkers through and through. Even if only from our point of view.
22 Years Later
In 2023, I spent my first 9/11 in New York City.
And, if I’m really honest, I felt a deeper sadness than I have in years. But let me back up a moment and put that admission in a better context.
Like most of you, I watched the events of 9/11 unfold on TV. Coming to the news after the first plane had hit the North Tower, as I was busy getting my son off to Pre-K that morning.
I remember the first anniversary of 9/11. I sat alone on the floor of my bedroom, watching the coverage on TV, and weeping.
Fast-forward to 2016 where I was working alongside a group of wonderful Special Forces Veterans and members of Fire Departments all around our country, raising funds for Military and First-Responders burned in the line of duty.
Through the connections of a team member who was a former Captain of FDNY Rescue 1, I spent three days in NYC with a film crew, gathering footage of members of the FDNY, and their fire-houses. Our objective was to capture content underscoring the need to support fire-fighters, specifically, who had been burned in the line of duty.
But what actually happened, was an unanticipated gut-wrenching documentation of the effect 9/11 had on each of these groups of firefighters.
If you find yourself in NYC, and walk past a fire house that has its large garage doors open, you will undoubtedly observe a 9/11 Memorial, honoring those who were lost from that particular fire house. Always photographs. Sometimes flags. Various plaques. Often rescued bits of recovered helmets or doors from firetrucks, burned and mangled.
And it’s sickening. And heart-breaking. And in 2016, I listened to story after story after story of the lives that were lost, friends who never came back, and the near impossibility of ever really “moving on.”
One evening, our group was given an extraordinary opportunity. We boarded a boat, made entirely from steel rescued from “the pile”, and our group was taken to the south end of Manhattan, where the events of 9/11 were again retold, from the vantage point of the water.
It might seem cliché, but let me tell you something. I saw more brave, strong, courageous men break down in absolute tears those three days than I have ever seen before or since. And while 9/11 changed all of us, those three days in New York truly left an indelible impression on me.
For six years I raised funds for Veteran and First-Responder charities, (I actually participated in an all-female sky -diving event to raise money….that was scary!) I helped organized 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs, Push Up Challenges, honorary events at major national sporting venues. And along the way, I met dozens of people whose lives were ripped apart by the events of 9/11 and the years of military conflict that followed.
To say that we owe our First-Responders, Active Duty and Veterans and their families an enormous debt of gratitude is simply a massive understatement.
A few years later, in 2019 I was in NYC, and my flight back to Dallas cancelled due to weather. So, making lemonade out of lemons, I bought a single ticket to the Broadway Musical Come From Away. If you aren’t familiar, it’s based on the events in the Newfoundland town of Gander during the week following the September 11 attacks, when 38 planes, carrying approximately 7,000 passengers, were ordered to land unexpectedly at Gander International Airport. The characters in the musical are based on (and in most cases share the names of) actual Gander residents and stranded travelers they housed and fed.
I cried so hard the lady seated behind me handed me a tissue during the performance.
Over the past few days leading up to September 11, Will and I took the opportunity to watch a recording of real-time news coverage from the local NBC affiliate as the events of 9/11 unfolded. I’m sure many of you can relate, but every time I watch real-time footage, I have an intense feeling of panic.
The urge to scream out as I watch people standing around before the towers fall, “RUN! It’s going to get WORSE!” is almost impossible to suppress.
I can’t even focus on the First-Responders. It’s just too horrific.
The morning of 9/11, ironically, Will got on a plane headed back to Dallas for a few days. So, I turned on the news, which I rarely do in the mornings anymore. I just can’t start off my day with the absurdity of politics conveyed via morning shows.
But on this day, I did. And I watched the coverage of the Memorial Ceremony at Ground Zero. And I watched the unnerving footage I knew would be shown.
And thought about so many things.
I thought about how my own children have no memory of 9/11. They were 2 and 4 that day.
I thought about all the children born since then who have no memory of 9/11.
I wondered about how 9/11 is remembered in American History curriculum today. Has it been politicized? Brushed over? Forgotten entirely?
I set my phone alarm to ring, marking each important moment of that day, and said a prayer each time for the survivors and their families, for our Military, our First-Responders, and our elected officials. I prayed for the safety of Will, on a plane that very moment. Because how could I not associate the similar situations.
And after 23 years, you would think I’ve heard all the stories, and all the angles.
But, surprisingly I was confronted with two, new to me, stories of 9/11.
The first was The Man in the Red Bandana. If you aren’t familiar, here’s link so you can read more.
The second was a short 12 minute documentary titled Boat Lift, about the rescue efforts that took place via the waterfront at the tip of Manhattan. This short film left me in tears. And not just tears for the obvious reasons. But tears for the laser-focused and undeterred efforts of so many to help as many people as possible. To help those people who were literally running for their lives. Many injured. Many covered in ash. Absolutely scared out of their minds.
As I turned off the TV, and closed my phone, to sit down and get these thoughts down on paper, I feel a painful yearning hopefulness.
Pain from the fear of another attack, which some say is inevitable, and the word inevitable is so damn scary.
And a yearning hopefulness that 22 years later, as a country, as a nation, as a neighbor, as an American….we would have the same laser-focused and undeterred reaction. That we would not think twice, and help. That we would move with swiftness and care and compassion and simply help.
Because, at the end of the day, if we can no longer do that, then we have truly been defeated.
And I don’t know about you, but I never want to be counted among the defeated.
Tags: Murray Hill | New York City | New York History | NYC | NYC History | NYC Neighborhoods