UN and neighborhood gentrification
When you step into the United Nations complex in New York, there is very little that betrays the humble beginnings of its Turtle Bay neighborhood.
In 1945, the UN founders were at a loss to find a suitable area to build their headquarters. After the Charter was adopted at the conclusion of the San Francisco Conference of some 50 nations in June 1945, the organization formally came into being in October 1945, after the Charter was ratified by the requisite number of states.
Several nations offered to host the new world body, but without consensus on its location, the organization remained homeless for a while, even after the United States Congress invited the UN to locate within the US. Notwithstanding opposition to that choice, including by wartime allies such as France, Britain and Netherlands, the UN General Assembly, meeting in London in January 1946, resolved to accept the US offer.
Those decisions by the UNGA and US Congress notwithstanding, the UN still needed funds to establish its permanent headquarters. For several years (1945-1952), the Security Council, General Assembly and Economic and Social Council — the three main UN bodies — held their meetings in different countries and cities.
The UN founders had a grand idea of building an independent city for their new world capital, but they were forced, for various reasons, to abandon that dream for a much smaller complex. Several US locations were being considered without success, when the Rockefeller family championed the cause of funding a new site for the UN. They were already among the world wealthiest, from oil (Exxon, formerly known as Standard Oil), real estate and other interests. With business interests all over the world, including in Saudi Arabia, they had a clear interest in international peace and security after the devastation of WW-II.
But the Rockefellers had also another interest in helping the UN locate in New York. If they managed to bring the UN close to one of their own sizable real estate holdings, the value of their properties would benefit greatly, not to mention improving benefit their somewhat controversial reputation. Nelson Rockefeller, who later become New York governor (1959-1973) and US vice president (1974-77) under Gerald Ford, worked hard to secure the agreement. Initially, he offered to locate the UN on the Rockefeller family estate of Kykuit, some 35km north of Manhattan, but that suggestion was rejected as being too isolated. Had Kukuit been accepted, real estate values there would have skyrocketed, including land owned by the family. Next, the family suggested a cheap piece of land in Manhattan itself located across the street from Rockefeller real estate holdings, including Tudor City.
The new site was ideal. For one thing, it was located on the East River in the middle of the city. Second, it was cheap and rundown, once called Goat Hill and populated by roaming animals and squatters. Later, it became the location of the city’s slaughterhouses and remained shabby and seedy. The Rockefellers and other property owners in Turtle Bay had a clear interest in gentrifying the neighborhood and driving the slaughterhouses and other undesirables away, in the name of world peace.
Nelson’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated the land to the city for use by the UN. Its area was slightly over 17 acres (70,000 sq. meters), much smaller than what UN founders had in mind; its value was a mere $8.5 million.
The plan worked. The UN accepted the land gift and the US gave an interest-free loan of $65 million for reconstruction. Turtle Bay gentrified as the slaughterhouses, squatters, and low-rent tenements made way for gleaming new buildings and became one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Today, the original total land value ($8.5 million) could fetch a decent apartment or office space in the area, but no more. Wallace Harrison, a Rockefeller in-law, served as the Director of Planning for the UN Headquarters. His firm, Harrison and Abramovitz, oversaw the execution of the design, which was made by merging two designs made by Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer and the French Le Corbusier.
The rest is history. When earlier this month, I visited the UN again, I recalled my own experience here, when I lived for nearly two decades not from these buildings and thought how the story of the UN complex was a lesson on how visionaries such as the Rockefellers could do well for themselves, while doing good in promoting world peace and security.