For weeks I’ve been grumbling to anyone willing to listen (and everyone who follows me on Twitter) about Gramercy Park—more specifically, about how I work three blocks away on Irving Place and am a tax-paying, law-abiding resident of New York City, a historic preservation enthusiast who never litters, and yet this space, a perfect square of green I have to walk around to get to Lexington Avenue, is inaccessible to me because I don’t have one of the 400 keys in circulation. The keys cost $350 and are very hard to copy; a lost key costs $1,000 to replace. To have one means to also maintain living quarters in one of the 39 buildings sitting on 63 lots surrounding the park, and I don’t have $3,000 a month for a rental or $1.6 million for a small co-op studio. While I understand the idea that the park, founded in 1833, isn’t a park so much as it is a very nice front lawn for the lucky residents of the square, I also like to read quietly outside and I’m annoyed that I can’t do it there. I can, however, peer through the wrought-iron fence on my lunch break and silently seethe with class rage, like a more selfish Bernie Sanders, which is what I’m doing when I hear Arlene Harrison, president and founder of the Gramercy Park Block Association and one of the five trustees of Gramercy Park, call my name. Arlene has agreed to use her key and her time to take me inside the park, for which I’m extremely grateful, because it’s actually pretty hard to sneak in.
Arlene is a head shorter than I am and a thousand times more energetic; she greets me with a wave and is pulling me into a hug and unlocking the gate to the park at the same time. After we say our initial hellos, she places in my hands a handsome green folder that contains a printout of Gramercy Park history, a glossy reprint of a New York Times article about her, and a business card proclaiming her Mayor of Gramercy Park, an unofficial title she’s earned through decades of stewardship. She refers to Maialino, the Danny Meyer restaurant on the ground floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel, as her “office,” and over the course of our afternoon she will greet gardeners, children, and elder-care assistants with the kind of unfailing enthusiasm and affection usually reserved for beloved relatives returning from long journeys.
When we enter (I hold my breath as I step through the gate, not entirely sure I won’t immediately be expelled for some unknowable error), I see only one other person, who turns out to be a member of our party—Arlene’s friend and fellow trustee Reverend Dr. Thomas Pike, rector emeritus of Calvary-St. George’s, the Episcopal church that sits just north of the park. Later, as the sun takes an especially pretty turn and the light in the park starts to glow, he will tell me a sweet, sad story about Edwin Booth playing marbles in the park with neighborhood children and I will write “find out how to become Episcopalian” on my notepad.
But first: the three of us sit facing each other on two benches and within moments I’ve learned that neither of my companions thinks Gramercy Park is the slightest bit … snobbish, let’s say.
“It’s not elitist,” insists Reverend Pike.
“No, it’s really not,” echoes Arlene, and before I can will myself to protest she says something that would be repeated several times during the course of our hour together:
“The gates aren’t to keep people out. They’re to protect the landscaping!”
“The landscape, looking at this landscape, is a gift to the people of this community. Just to walk by and look at it is a gift,” Reverend Pike tells me.
I’m still trying to work that one out.
In 1831, a lawyer and real estate investor named Samuel B. Ruggles purchased a chunk of land in what is now Midtown Manhattan from the Duane family and began to engage in what’s now thought of as some of the earliest urban planning work in the United States. One of his creations was Union Square, given to the city as free and open public park space, which it is to this day.
Another was a square a few blocks to the northeast, set among 66 lots and called Gramercy, a bastardization of the old Dutch name for the area. Ruggles envisioned Gramercy Park (he toyed with calling it Gramercy Square) as belonging to and in the care of the people who lived on the surrounding lots, though in 1833, when the fence went up, they were still mostly empty. (He rightly predicted the park would increase the value of the lots in perpetuity.) The arrival of the Croton Aqueduct in the early 1840s, bringing fresh water to a city where it had previously been in short supply, made wealthy folk eager to construct new townhouses with fancy indoor water closets, and elegant Greek Revival rowhouses began to rise on the the lots. Ruggles’s deeding of the park to its neighbors created a board of trustees, which quickly organized to add landscape features in excess of the ones Ruggles spent $180,000 on in the park’s infancy (though, to be fair, most of that money went to draining the swamp that covered most of the acreage).
The landscaping, in many ways, matched the architecture of the townhouses on the square: after planting a row of privet shrubbery around the fences for privacy, landscape designer James Virtue laid out the park in the English Romantic style, which is to say the paths and bushes follow a logical geometry, while the plantings, many of which are still extant today, evoke a wildness that is, somehow, restrained.
The park’s history is clear on who it was for: residents, their friends, their tenants. It’s less clear on what those residents, friends, and tenants could do in and around the space, and that’s an issue hotly debated even now. The charter includes restrictions on the size and material of buildings that surround the park, and prohibits “the erection of buildings for business purposes or for any purpose dangerous or offensive to the neighboring inhabitants,” a clause the trustees have, over the last century and a half, used to successfully prevent commerce from intruding on the square. It also prohibits “games which will engender disputes and ill-feeling,” which, over the years, has been a thorn in the side of keyholders who want to play croquet, baseball, and Pokemon Go.
Each lot, beginning in 1847, was assessed a $10 annual fee, and the children of New York’s leading families used the park both as extension of home and as an ornament—Ruggles himself described the park as “ornamental” rather than recreational—to admire from within. Indeed, in 2016, the landscape of the park is still positively 19th century—unlike Central Park, or the smaller city green spaces that have adapted to modern uses and needs, Gramercy’s design is such that it’s easy to imagine young families and society matrons alike taking a turn behind the fence, breathing air that really does smell better than it does on the other side. It’s hard, in fact, to imagine doing anything else there.
Gramercy Park was opened to outsiders just once during its first five decades, and even then only out of necessity. The Civil War Draft Riots, a series of violent clashes largely instigated by Irish immigrants angry at being conscripted into the Union Army, quickly spread beyond the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, bringing the spectre of violence to the doorsteps of the city’s most fashionable neighborhoods. The park and its people were defended by the Eighth Regiment artillery, and the regiment’s reward was an invitation to camp inside the park until the city was quieted.
Two years later, the trustees petitioned the government for the payment of “expenses incurred by the Trustees of the Park in consequence of its occupation by a military force during the July riots in 1863.”
Their request was declined, and the gates were locked to the world once more.
A curious thing about Gramercy Park: the history of New York is the history of moving north, as those who could afford it fled the poorly constructed buildings and hot, swampy atmosphere of Lower Manhattan. This means that blocks lined with upper middle class rowhouses could, in just a moment’s time, become blocks lined with brothels, or warehouses, or tenements, as those who could afford to move decamped to the outer boroughs, the Upper East Side, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Gramercy is an exception to this part of the New York narrative—while it might not’ve been home to Vanderbilts or Goulds, respectable families continued to dwell happily there throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Edith Wharton was baptized at Calvary-St. George’s, and Theodore Roosevelt grew up on 20th Street. The park served as anchor to neighborhood society and neighborhood society served as guardian of the park.
In 1890, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that would have allowed a cable car to pass through the park, and in 1912 it was suggested that an actual road connect Irving Place and Lexington Avenue; both proposals were defeated by formal and informal organizing on the part of local stakeholders.
In 1931, residents and guests marked the park’s 100th anniversary with a procession covered in the New York Times. Dr. John H. Finley’s speech touched upon the Edenic nature of Gramercy Park:
We today beat the bounds of our little paradise, grateful, especially on behalf of the children, for this oasis in the desert of brick and stone. When our first parents were driven out of Paradise the trees remained the promise of a Paradise regained.
He also, though, made it clear the park’s trustees believed their oasis gave something even to those who could never dream of stepping inside:
I give the thanks not only of those who during the century have looked gratefully out from windows around this park, both the living and whose own windows were darkened by death, and the thanks of those who have sat or played under its trees but also the gratitude of the millions who in the 36,500 days of the century have caught reviving glimpses of its beauty and refreshing breath of its air.
All of this is a long way of saying: Ruggles’s vision of Gramercy Park as a jewel in the crown of exclusivity was actually pretty apt, and it still is. While Arlene responded to my email inquiry about visiting the park almost immediately, it’s still not easy to get in. One option is to stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel: guests in $400-a-night rooms can use one of the hotel’s six keys, though they do have to be escorted in by a hotel doorman. In an email, Gramercy Park Hotel Director of Sales and Marketing Danielle Choi told me that while the hotel doesn’t keep track of how many guests take advantage of park access, interest “is significant and is considered to be a huge privilege.”
During my afternoon with Arlene and Reverend Pike, a small group enters the park and Arlene immediately pegs them as being from the hotel—”it’s in the shoes,” she tells me. “No one who comes here every day would wear heels that high.” One of the party immediately begins taking selfies while another halfheartedly inspects some trees; the group poses for a photo with the statue of Edwin Booth that sits in the middle of the park and then they’re gone.
Speaking of Edwin Booth: another way in is through membership in the Players Club, founded by the actor and brother of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Founded by Edwin in 1888 and occupying an 1847 rowhouse with interior and exterior renovations by Stanford White, membership comes with park access, as does membership in the National Arts Club, housed at 15 Gramercy Park, in the mansion that once belonged to New York governor and 1876 presidential candidate Samuel Tilden.
Relationships between the clubs and the park have, over the years, been tense, never more so than in 2001, when now-disgraced National Arts Club president O. Aldon James brought a group of (mostly minority) students from Washington Irving High School into the park. Sharen Benenson, at the time one of the park’s trustees, reported them to the police for trespassing; a lawsuit brought by the students and the club ended in the park settling with each student for nearly $30,000.
Arlene doesn’t tell me this story, though I know she knows all about it; she doesn’t mention James by name at all, actually, though she does refer to “a difference in vision” when we talk about the National Arts Club, suggesting that that group would see Gramercy Park as an extension of their clubhouse, an outdoor site for parties and events contrary to the spirit of passive enjoyment imbued in the landscape.
It’s this idea of passive enjoyment I can’t quite wrap my mind around—this was supposed to be a story about getting into Gramercy Park, but once I’m inside I’m less interested in access and more interested in activity. Perhaps it’s foolish to think of the two acres as park space, since you can’t drink alcohol, play games, play music, or walk dogs inside the gates. Arlene suggests I think of Gramercy Park as analogous to the ocean as viewed from a beachfront hotel: that is to say, even for those who have keys, just knowing it’s there might be enough.
During the two hours I spend inside the park I notice that our party of three is there the longest, while a scant few others come and go for brief spells. In the middle of our conversation an angel-faced toddler approaches and solemnly gives me a handful of pebbles he’s picked up from the ground (the security of the park means he can do this while his caregiver waits on a bench).
I can’t lie: I like being inside Gramercy Park, and it only takes a few moments for all of my rancor about classism and subjugation of the non-elite through urban planning to float away like the breeze, which really does, I can’t stress enough, feel so much nicer on this side of things. I like Arlene Harrison, and I like Reverend Pike, and I truly don’t think they’re the snobs I thought they’d be (before writing this story I assumed everyone who had a key was like the mean father in Washington Square, or Uma Thurman, who at one point lived nearby). I don’t, however, buy their argument—which isn’t so much theirs as it is Samuel Ruggles’s—that just walking around the gates brings any real pleasure to those of us who can’t get in. Partly because it’s actually very annoying to have to make a square when you want to walk in a straight line to head north, and partly because—and here I freely admit my own jealous nature—I am jealous, and it’s hard to appreciate hundred-year-old trees and Alexander Calder sculptures when I think about how much nicer it would be to actually sit among them.
It’s also, taken to its logical conclusion, a troubling bit of physical and social engineering: many people I spoke to pointed out that Roosevelts and Kennedys had roots in the neighborhood, and that the 20th century’s Progressive movement might have been, in some small part, inspired by the clean air and sweet birdsongs enjoyed by wealthy children who grew up to be wealthy and socially conscious adults. But Progressivism was just as much about regulating the behavior of others as it was about offering opportunity—one need only look at the list of rules presented at the opening of Central Park to realize that providing people with open space, in most cities, means deciding long before they get there what they’ll be allowed to do there, and that’s something we’re still reckoning with. It’s pretty clear that some parks, public and private alike, aren’t for everyone, whether we’re talking about Gramercy Park or Zuccotti Park, owned and operated not by the NYC Parks Department, but by Brookfield Office Properties, a private corporation. (If any keyholders are reading this, don’t worry: I did actually leave and am not planning on Occupying Gramercy Park.)
So what do we do about it? Tear down the gates? Decide together that if all of us can’t have two serene acres in the middle of Manhattan, no one can?
Or does it make more sense to think of Gramercy Park less as a park, or a square, or even a landscape that moves and breathes and changes dynamically like the rest of the city, and more like a time capsule?
That, in the end, is what I think it is: a monument to a historical moment and a historical attitude in which silence, solitude, and green existed in New York City, just waiting to be fenced in.
Editor: Sara Polsky