The strip of Third Avenue that runs between 29th and 38th streets in Manhattan is more than 1,500 miles from Club Med Cancun, but on sticky summer nights it could easily be mistaken for that spring-break frat-trap where youth is ascendant and every hour is happy hour. On almost any evening, the bars lining the strip pump and grind to the beat of screechy-boozy flirtation, while “Mambo Number Five” blasts over the sound system like a bad bar mitzvah memory.
Girls in Seven jeans nuzzle up to banker-boys in baseball caps. The boys ply girls with Raspberry Stoli. Everywhere the night gyrates with the sound of suburban kids at play in the big city.
And yet, despite the riot of youthful hormones, there is something about this neighborhood, known as Murray Hill, that eerily resembles a Florida retirement resort. Perhaps it’s the dedication to challenge-free living, or perhaps it’s the abundance of ready-made leisure activities. But swap happy hour with the early-bird special, and it’s little Boca in the big city.
“It’s the thing to do. All of our friends live here,” said a giggly paralegal named Lauren, 24, by way of explaining how she wound up living, and partying, in Murray Hill. Perched on a stool at a cheesy-chic sports pub called Bar 515, she was sipping Bud Light and gesturing like a girl who is used to making demands.
“You have to make me out to be very skinny in your article!” she said.
With her party-girl personality and not-quite–New York sensibility, Lauren is the classic Murray Hill Girl: a being of sheltered origins and country-club aspirations, overpriced jeans and, yes, skinny legs. (Her male counterpart has many of the same traits, except he wears overpriced cargo shorts and pastel-striped button-downs.) Once, not long ago, she wouldn’t have been caught dead blowing her parents’ money on an apartment in this solidly middle-class, family neighborhood. It just wasn’t the thing to do—particularly for girls who’d been told never to rent south of 59th Street.
But in recent years, Murray Hill has been all but glitz-bombed from existence as a horde of coddled post-collegians, armed with marketing jobs and U. Penn diplomas, has swarmed into the neighborhood. For these kids, who are almost all white, almost all affluent, living on “the Hill” has become a rite of passage, like, say, getting a car for their 16th birthday. Drawn by the leafy streets and 30-story mega-buildings, they have turned the area into their own pseudo-urban Promised Land. And they keep coming.
Never mind that Murray Hill has as much metro-cred as a cul-de-sac in Great Neck.
Or that its new residents wouldn’t have survived a night in New York 15 years ago. The young Murray Hillites seem perfectly content with the mini-Manhattan theme park they’ve created, which allows them to feel like they’re living the Big Apple experience while safely ensconced in a bubble of familiarity. Indeed, what’s so jarring about Murray Hill is that its young people, who’ve been treated to everything from the best colleges to trips to Europe, have as much interaction with their adopted city as tourists on urban safari.
“Murray Hill has more young people that just graduated from college than any other neighborhood in the city,” said Kevin Kurland, the president of the eponymously named Kurland Realty Inc., which he founded out of his one-bedroom Murray Hill apartment eight years ago. “This is where they land, their first stop …. I would say 90 percent of the clients I’ve placed are between 21 and 25 years old.”
“It’s part of the transition from college to starting your career,” added a tousle-haired University of Connecticut grad named Christian, who moved into the area roughly six months ago, when he embarked on his own transition from frat-boy to financial analyst. For roughly $1,700 a month, he said, he gets all the perks of college but with the glistening patina of big-city living: the two-bedroom apartment that he shares with a high-school friend in Laurence Towers (a giant packing-crate of a building on 32nd Street and Third Avenue that is crawling with post-collegians), the roof-deck, the balcony, the convenient commute and the ready-made nightlife. His only regret, he said, is that his ex-girlfriend had the same idea: “[She] lives about five blocks away—God help me.”
Not that the former frat brother should have been terribly surprised. In a neighborhood like Murray Hill, where a casual stroll to the multiplex can turn into a full-blown college reunion, tangled romantic ties and incestuous social bonds all but come with the rental contract; like dog poop and noisy neighbors, they are simply one of the small sacrifices a young man must make to live cheek to cheek with the same clique he hung with in high school or partied with in college.
“There is not a ‘Michigan building’ or a ‘Syracuse building,’ but I would say about 50 to 80 percent of the tenants in these buildings are from schools like Syracuse, Michigan, Albany, Penn State, University of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Binghamton, George Washington, Emory, Wisconsin and Boston University,” said Mr. Kurland, who is himself a Syracuse man. “We’ve actually placed several people from Harvard, from Yale and from Dartmouth.”
And college is only one of the most obvious bonds these kids share. During the five or so years since they first landed in the area, the kids of Murray Hill have evolved into their own readily identifiable genus with a common set of rituals, kinship patterns and sumptuary codes. Particularly sumptuary codes.
Walk down Third Avenue on any summer afternoon—or better yet, just stand outside the large Tasti D-Lite that seems to function as a kind of village square—and you will see one of the greatest parades of fashion-victim sameness since white Keds hit the market in Wilmette. Everywhere you look there are girls teetering about in the latest Cosmo Girl trends, like kept-wives-in-training: there are girls dressed in low-riders and girls with Tiffany’s rings (always on the middle finger, to show they’re still on the marriage market), girls with expensive highlights and girls lugging those boxy doggie-carrier purses that celebrities like Ashley Olsen love so much. And, of course, they are all wearing cell phones, dangling from their ears like giant clip-on earrings.
“They all dress the same,” said Frank Cuttita, the comely young co-proprietor of the Clover Deli, which has been a Murray Hill standby since 1948. “It’s a domino effect: One girl has something, the whole building has it.”
“Yeah,” blurted his cousin and co-owner Chris Cuttita. “It could be those funny-looking boots—Ooga or Ugg Boots or something—everyone wears them. If it’s low-cut jeans, everyone’s got them. I mean, they’re nice people, but their emphasis is on what they’re wearing, on the trends.”
The story is much the same for the boys, too. Though they tend to wear less elaborate garb than the girls—the unspoken law of Murray Hill dictates that everyone must stick faithfully to gender stereotypes— the guys have their own carefully coordinated uniform: a simple business suit and chunky silver watch by day, and a classic college-T-shirt-and-khaki-shorts getup by night (though it’s worth noting that some of them have taken to wearing seersucker shorts more recently). Many of them wear baseball caps, others go for the cropped-locks-and-hair-gel look, which they accessorize with smug smiles and the occasional hand-me-down BMW. They walk down the street double-fisting cell phones and iPods.
But the uniformity doesn’t end there, with Yankees caps and Juicy track suits; rather it goes deeper, to those bigger, ontological themes of Work, Family and Future.
Take careers, for instance. When it comes to their professions, the young Murray Hellions seem to have an almost gravitational attraction to the fields of finance, marketing and advertising (which will, of course, eventually enable them to recreate the very comfortable lives they’ve enjoyed since childhood).
They tend to come from suburban and affluent families, which is to say they grew up in any of the tristate bedroom communities and their parents make “in excess of $250,000,” according to Mr. Kurland. And when they themselves are logging regular six-figure salaries, many of them will no doubt return to these suburban idylls to start their own families.
“New York is for your 20’s and early 30’s,” said a Westchester native who gave his name as “Jon” and said he worked in “marketing.” “I don’t know if I want to raise my kids in this kind of environment.”
Which may explain why he wound up in Murray Hill.
Though it’s hard to know which came first, the suburban kids or the suburban ambience, Murray Hill has the feel of a Westchester bedroom community—call it Little Larchmont—or a retirement resort. Clean and convenient, with ample opportunity for group activities, the Hill is Manhattan living made easy, a place where everyone knows each other and there’s not too much grit or poverty to dampen the atmosphere. At 22, many of the residents have already perfected the casual gait of people who have nowhere to go, nothing much to do.
“You can actually take a step back and breathe here,” said an aerobicized little blonde named Kathleen, 21, as she paraded down 34th Street in a purple pastel miniskirt on a recent Friday afternoon. “It’s comfortable, it’s very neighborhood-y, and everything’s here. I don’t like the subway, so the less time spent on them the better. I like being able to walk from point A to point B.”
A young finance type named Allen crunched it down to something more succinct: “I would say it just has everything a professional out of college would want: It has the movie theater, the bars, the gyms, the location.”
Above all, however, Murray Hill has the buildings—the coveted 30-story apartment towers that loom over the landscape like giant vertical gated communities. Built between the late 1980’s and early 2000’s, these buildings are monuments to immediate gratification, offering everything from roof decks to full-service gyms to white-gloved doormen in livery. A person could lock herself in one of these towers for a week and never miss the outside world.
One of the newest buildings, the Anthem, for instance, has added a billiard room to its list of attractions as well as private exercise classes with “celebrity trainer” Radu. The Windsor Court, a two-tower 725-unit behemoth, has a shiny black fence—one might almost call it a gate—that snakes around the base of the building, walling off a small courtyard where, on sunny days, vain nymphets sunbathe in itsy-bitsy bikinis.
For many Murray Hill dwellers, these buildings are the real neighborhood attraction, the supreme reason they, or their parents, are willing to shell out between $3,500 and $5,000 for a two-bedroom apartment (though many kids further divide them into three-bedrooms to help cut the cost). By some counts, there are as many as nine super-popular ones in the Hill, each with their own faux-British name—the Biltmore, the Rivergate, the Murray Hill Manor—and identity. Not long go, a couple might work their whole lives to rent an apartment in one of these amenity-rich buildings, but in today’s Murray Hill they come with the college graduation gift.
True, a number of the buildings don’t have all the frills and lace of the Anthem, and some of their apartments are smaller than a Bloomingdale’s dressing room. But even these buildings satisfy the basic requirements of the area’s high-maintenance tenants: dorm-like comfort, for the kids who live in the apartments, and doormen, for the safety-hysterical parents who help pay for them. (No one in Murray Hill seems to have noticed that New York is pretty safe these days. But never mind: The doormen are also convenient recipients for the kids’ bundles of dry cleaning that get delivered right to the front desk.)
“I didn’t care either way, but I needed some start-up help from my parents and they wouldn’t do it without a doorman,” explained a U. Penn grad named Eric as he and his roommate finished moving their belongings into their new home, cleverly called the Habitat, on a recent Friday afternoon.
The influx of such young, fresh-off-the-boat college kids has not always been welcomed by older Murray Hill residents, who have been known to grumble about louder noise levels and crowded elevators. But the youth boom has clearly been good business for management companies, and local realtors have been only too eager to embrace the new trend as well.
“We actually direct market to these college grads,” said Mr. Kurland. “We get in touch with our clients, who put us in touch with their friends who are still in school: brothers and sisters, cousins, friends. There also happen to be a lot of fraternity and sorority members who live around here,” he added, “and they put us in touch with their organizations from school as well.”
The strategy clearly seems to be working. During the eight years that Kurland Realty has been in business, Mr. Kurland’s company has mushroomed from a one-person operation run out of his apartment to a 40-person mini-empire with one office in Murray Hill and one in Chelsea. By the end of the summer, the company plans to have hired another 15 agents.
Summer is the bonanza season for realtors in Murray Hill, the high-water mark, as wave after wave of recently sprung college kids washes into the neighborhood. The first scouts begin trickling in toward the end of April, when the University of Michigan gets out, and by June the rents have snaked up with the temperatures, as landlords try to cash in on the surge in demand. “It picks up dramatically …. We probably do 70 percent of our business during these months,” said Mr. Kurland. “This is when you start seeing the guys on the street with their hats backwards, with their T-shirts, and their backpacks, and their flip-flops.
It’s college, you know?”
And indeed, on a recent Saturday morning, the Windsor Court rental office did have that first-day-of-college feeling as would-be renters and their parents jockeyed for a chance to see one of the few available apartments. Harried in-house rental agents swooped in and out, keys jangling, while mother-daughter pairs talked bed size (queen or full?) and walk-in closets. “This layout would be perfect. We need this apartment,” one mother announced to the agent who was manning the office. The mother and her daughter were dressed in a matching white-and-aqua color scheme.
Windsor Court is, in many ways, the mothership of the Murray Hill building fleet.
Sprawled across the full length of 31st Street between Third and Lexington avenues, it has a circular driveway, a gold awning and a gaudy lobby with persistent air-conditioning. The average age of the tenants can’t be older than 25. It has often been compared to the Normandie Court, the notorious post-collegiate crash pad on East 95th Street, so it is perhaps not surprising to learn that both buildings were developed by the Milstein Organization and that they still share a management company.
Normandie Court was the original dorm-style apartment building (hence its nickname, Dormandie Court). It was built in the mid-1980’s during the first yuppie boom, and, along with several surrounding buildings, it became the nucleus of an Upper East Side frat-kid explosion much like the one Murray Hill is experiencing now. In those days, of course, the kind of kids who flocked to the Dormandie simply didn’t live beneath 59th Street, which was considered dirty or dangerous or God-knows-what. It wasn’t “cool” and parents wouldn’t allow it anyway. So the East 90’s, with their towering mega-buildings, became their natural frolicking grounds.
In recent years, however, all that has begun to change as small colonies of dorm-scrapers have sprouted up throughout neighborhoods that have been either rezoned or re-trendified by the forces of gentrification. Murray Hill was perhaps the first area to go, but Hell’s Kitchen (now called “Midtown West” by the realtors) has not been far behind, and Chelsea, with its glistening new high-rises popping up along Sixth Avenue, looks set to go any day. These buildings have even begun shooting up along the Bowery, and before long Manhattan might become one giant floating dormitory.
“Where else would these post-grads go?” asked Mr. Kurland. “They’re going to be coming forever.”
Of course, “forever” isn’t a very interesting concept to many 22-year-olds, and as a throng of Murray Hellions crammed into the bars along Third Avenue on a recent Thursday evening, their focus seemed very much on the here and now. They had beers to drink and passes to make and fun to have. And the next day, they would do the very same things all over again.