Trying on Murray Hill Girl

by

06/09/2007

E 38th St & Lexington Ave, NY, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

One Halloween, I decided to wear something different than my usual orange shirt from the 1989 Westchester Girl Scouts Jamboree. On the evening of disguises, I tried on a very local one. I dressed as a stereotypical “Murray Hill” Girl, a costume that required an explanation and a bibliography. The costume evoked a particular New York Observer news article written a couple of years ago, “Murray Hell,” that detailed the new waves of gentrification in my neighborhood—the eastside slice of Manhattan between 42nd and 29th streets—a place which I have been inhabiting for just over a year. Just fifteen blocks and two avenues away from my prior apartment, I dealt with the trappings of a yuppie sublet and the assumptions that come with it. Wearing my neighborhood so visibly, I grappled with my relationship to it, especially since a New Yorker’s identity hinges more on the location itself than on the way one interacts with it.

I based my particular incarnation of Murray Hill Girl on the judgments that I feared others made of me. She lived close enough to the stretch of Third Avenue bars to be able to totter home in platform shoes, and wore artifacts from various fixtures of her habitat. Her outfit included an empty Tasti-De-Lite frozen yogurt cup as a wrist cuff in honor of the three such shops in quick walking distance from her apartment. The sixteen faintly flavored, low-calorie varieties of the stuff available each day often taste as vapid as the neighborhood feels.

A turquoise embroidered skirt purchased from the clearance rack of one of the many boutiques in the area with names like “Pookie & Sebastian” and “Coup de Coeur.” A shiny $5 purse like the metallic bags residents carry to hit the town or pick up a quart of milk. A large ring, though more on the plastic than diamond end of the spectrum. A small stuffed dog to stand in for the squirrel-sized pups many a Murray Hill girl owns. And for the piece de resistance, a custom-designed magenta t-shirt with a gold bat and gothic turquoise letters spelling out my inspiration’s title “Murray Hell.” I did not get around to the fake tan or highlights, and to be truly authentic, I also would have had a frat boy in flip flops and a button down collared shirt by my side, or anxiously text messaging me. With a nonprofit job instead of something in finance or consulting, I would need an imposter’s resume as well.

Admittedly, the costume was a mix of things that I or any other woman might normally wear, but I like to think that the combination made a striking impact of visual, intellectual and sociopolitical significance. Like my own style, my costume may have been a little too smart and a little too subtle, and scary only to me.

At a party downtown that Halloween night when asked, “What’re you dressed up as?” my friend got to answer “farmer” and continue chatting, but I had a harder time explaining my wardrobe representation of my neighborhood and personal aesthetic. All night, people asked me the stock New Yorker question—“Where do you live?” My trendy peers probably expected an answer of Brooklyn, most likely in or around Williamsburg, so when I told people Murray Hill (or “midtown east” to be vague), some looked surprised or even disgusted. Recently over gelatos, a Williamsburger date in a faded rock band t-shirt even rolled his eyes from across the water at my neighborhood’s mention. We did not have a second date.

Unlike Williamsburg, Murray Hill does not have a live music scene beyond occasional karaoke nights, its inhabitants are as white as the stiff vanilla cupcakes at the local pastry cafe, and it has a generic sports bar for every resident. However, Williamsburg is becoming un-hip as quickly as it became hip. Drawn to the once reasonable rents of this rapidly gentrifying industrial shell and working class neighborhood, vegetarian hipsters now reside across the street from former slaughterhouses and shop for organic peanut butter at the corner bodegas. In recent years, Murray Hill has certainly attracted more bankers than artists, but now both locales have about the same number of luxury apartment complexes in development. With Murray Hill girls and Williamsburg hipsters pricing out families, immigrants and artists, perhaps the two areas won’t be different for long.

Besides rental trends, these neighborhoods have experienced ideological shifts as well, at least according to the lore. In 1827, Williamsburg was fiercely independent, existing as its own city until 1855 when the Burg joined Brooklyn. Well before the rambunctious Williamsburg was born, Murray Hill was a scene for British sympathizers and saboteurs. Murray Hill takes its name from a prominent eighteenth century Quaker merchant family, the Murrays. The family patriarch Robert Murray was a fierce loyalist during the American Revolution who was exiled after the war.

By contrast, his wife Mary Lindley Murray is said to have stalled British troops by entertaining them with tea, conversation and perhaps even a little seduction, allowing George Washington and company enough time to retreat from New York. So, whenever some hipster gasps at a Murray Hill girl’s address, she can simply point out that her neighborhood’s heritage was full of rebellion, revolution and sex, all to make America independent. Meanwhile, after just 28 years of independence—likely the same age as the hipster rolling his eyes at a Murray Hiller—Williamsburg sold out. Whether homogenization of the city continues or neighborhood identities shift as easily as putting on different t-shirts, the address-based judgments continue.

Walking around my scrutinized neighborhood is pretty pleasant, even though the Quaker Murrays probably wouldn’t play on the buck hunting videogames with fake guns and simulated carnage that dot every dive bar. Now that the ladies of the night haven’t wandered the sidewalks for years, in costume I could rival the tartiest-dressed pedestrians around, though I hear they might still operate on Lexington Ave and 28th Street between a 24-hour McDonalds and the “Ascot” apartment building.

The only ones prancing around the neighborhood are the petite Murray Hill girl-size dogs, practical though possibly doubling as accessories. Regardless of the size of her dog, a Murray Hill Girl must commit to walking it several times a day, whether she has to wear flip flops, rain boots or winter gear. One can only be so bourgeois if she has to pick up an animal’s poop. Meanwhile, despite the fact that I just killed another houseplant, I still have more greenery inside my apartment than outside where I have never seen two trees standing next to each other. Though we lack natural flora, I do like the lavender flowers hanging over the restaurant below the townhouse across the street, just a few strides away from the pink and green painted benches outside of the toy shop.

That Halloween night with my low maintenance stuffed dog in tow, I was walking up Second Avenue just south of the closest Tasti-De-Lite, when I saw the final piece of my costume—tall, wearing a black shirt tucked into grey slacks outside a bar—Murray Hell Guy. As I got closer, I saw him unzip his pants with one hand and hold a cell phone with the other, urinating and chatting comfortably in his domain. He gestured towards me as if he were about to say something, but I did not stop to listen. Certainly, public urination isn’t new to the city, but in my neighborhood it’s from the bankers instead of the bums. Like so many of the dogs walking around, perhaps Murray Hell Guy was just marking his territory, but he was defiling our surroundings. I rolled my eyes.

While Williamsburg residents may also urinate on the street—just last month I saw a gray-haired woman smile and squat down to relieve herself between two cars on the sidewalk by the park—Murray Hell Guy, regardless of his class or profession, should be accountable. Much like Robert Murray and the Brits, he may have felt entitled to pouring his pomp and privilege onto my street. Revolt ousted them and he could be excised from the neighborhood too, though more likely because of rent than revolution.

My costume may fit reasonably well, but Murray Hill Girl’s counterpart exuded the traits that make this wave of gentrification imperious. Frozen yogurt, cute dogs and shiny purses are relatively benign, but that Halloween night, I rejected his presumptuous piss, and with it, the faults of these new neighborhood archetypes and the implication that by living here I am one of them.

With a nod to Mary Lindley Murray, this Murray Hill Girl impersonator acquiesces to the neighborhood wardrobe, customs and domesticated animals, but with an eye towards revolution, she rebuffs judgmental hipsters and colonizing pissers alike, searching for an identity that transcends her address and enhances the city. Now, the old orange t-shirt and Murray Hell top hang side by side in the closet; their function to clothe rather than define.

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