Tulips and Trust Funds A Look at Park Avenue

Tell someone your address is on Park Avenue in New York City, and immediately you've conjured images of luxury, affluence, and status. Over the last two centuries, Park Avenue has become synonymous with the good life - the home of millionaire industrialists since the turn of the last century, it is now the address of wealthy financiers, attorneys, medical professionals, and old-money families who've been there for generations, living in some of the most luxurious co-op buildings in the city.

Before the Money Came

Like a lot of neighborhoods in the city, Park Avenue wasn't always a bastion of jet-setting socialites and ladies who lunch. In the first half of the 19th century, the street was called 4th Avenue, and the surrounding area was largely comprised of undeveloped farmland. All the urban action was downtown, and what is now Carnegie Hill and Park Avenue was then too remote to inspire much interest.

That all changed in 1831 when railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt connected Lower Manhattan to Harlem via the New York and Harlem rail lines. The horse-drawn railroad was a boon to the area - for a time. When locomotives replaced horses in the 1830s however, the smoke, soot, and constant noise from the tracks turned the idyllic farmland into a dingy rail yard whose only inhabitants were poor immigrants and squatters who built clapboard shacks along the train routes. Between the cinders, the grime, and the fumes coming from Peter Cooper's glue factory below 34th Street, Park Avenue was hardly glamorous or fashionable. It took a massive engineering feat to even make the tulip-colored medians that characterize the street today a possibility.

That feat was the burying of the railroad tracks that ran from the South Street Seaport to Harlem. Once the tracks were covered, the noise and pollution were reduced, and what people know today as Park Avenue began to emerge. The shantytowns slowly gave way to well-built, permanent row houses, occupied by middle-class merchants and businesspeople and their families. As the city expanded uptown, wealthy industrialists began building grand homes along Fifth and Madison Avenues, and the cachet imparted by the nearby Astors, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies eventually trickled onto 4th Avenue, which by then was called Park, and sported a grassy promenade where greasy train tracks once lay.

"It became a status address when the railroad went under the street and they started building luxury buildings there," says Patricia Warburg Cliff, senior vice president of The Corcoran Group, a Manhattan-based real estate firm. "Before that, it was mostly factories and tenements. The earliest really fancy buildings along Park Avenue - the ones with doormen and elevators - date to 1909, 1910; around that time the street began to be seen as a prestigious address."

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