Review: 'A Worldly Affair—New York, the United Nations, and the Story Behind Their Unlikely Bond' by Pamela Hanlon
Friday, September 8, 2017
By: Nancy Idaka Sheran
We survived September’s street closures and traffic problems, a side-effect of the United Nations annual General Assembly meeting. And now that we’re getting into the season of peace and goodwill, it is a good time to reflect on the UN, which has the mission of international peace and security and is entering its eighth decade based in New York City. The recently published book, A Worldly Affair—New York, the United Nations, and the Story Behind Their Unlikely Bond, by Pamela Hanlon, a resident of Turtle Bay, helps us put it all in perspective.
The book details the story of how New York City and, in particular, the site along the East River in Manhattan, was chosen to be the location of the United Nations, how the site was developed and how it evolved. The UN is an international body, formed in 1945 after World War II, and it is populated by diplomats and their staff from all of the member nations. Planning also had to accommodate diplomat families, UN affiliates and mission staff, close to 16,000 people currently. Over the years, many well-known people were involved: Mayor La Guardia, Robert Moses, Nelson Rockefeller, Dag Hammarskjold, architect Le Corbusier, developers Sheldon Solow, Donald Trump and three generations of Zeckendorfs. Of course, there were many more who contributed who are not as well known.
This story is one of New York City pride at being recognized as the “center of the world,” and also of the benefits, compromises and difficulties of having a massive international organization in the heart of a city. Both Turtle Bay and Murray Hill have been shaped by the UN, with its missions and international residents.
It was fascinating to learn about the complex deals that were needed— initially for the siting of the UN, later for the rental of temporary spaces during the recent renovation of the aging buildings, and finally for the acquisition of more property to accommodate the growing needs of the UN. To provide space for future needs, state legislation allowed for a section of Robert Moses Playground at 1st Avenue between 41st and 42nd Street to be used for a UN office tower, an option that remains open until the end of 2019. In exchange, new parkland has been created in the East 20s, where Asser Levy Place is located, and a potential esplanade along the East River is in sight. State Senator Liz Krueger, Council Member Dan Garodnick, and Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh were involved with these negotiations. The City and the UN handled the inevitable conflicts in various ways, depending on who was in office. Last year also saw the renovation of Trygve Lie Plaza on 1st Avenue at 42nd Street, where a large sculptural clock forms the peace sign twice a day.
One of the best Murray Hill anecdotes is an incident in 1960 when Fidel Castro of Cuba and his entourage of 80 people cooked chickens in their rooms at the Shelbourne Hotel (on Lexington Avenue at 37th Street). The hotel kept their $10,000 deposit, which the Cubans contested. Happily, the Cubans now have a mission not far from there on Lexington at 38th Street, where they can cook their chickens without being fined.
Photos: Book cover, Trygve Lie Plaza