On Thursday, a tall, crisply dressed man wearing a black overcoat led a small wide-eyed group across a quiet Manhattan street to a gated park. A decorative brown frill fell from his closed fist. Attached to the frill was a key. Swiftly he unlocked the black gate and ushered the family in.
This is Gramercy Park, the pristine garden in the center of New York City that looks like a regular park — but isn’t. It’s accessible only to keyholders whose buildings front the green (including guests at the high-end Gramercy Park Hotel, who must be escorted in and out, as was the case with the wide-eyed group).
It’s possibly one of the strangest and most obviously undemocratic places in the five boroughs, and no amount of complaining will get you entry. Except for the single hour every year that the park is open to the public, which occurs 6 p.m.-7 p.m. this Saturday.
Christmas Eve carols.
Is it undemocratic or a misunderstanding?
The park’s guardians note that those with the keys pay for the upkeep of the park — $8,000 per year, per lot (some of the 39 buildings occupy more than one lot, and thus pay more and have many more key holders).
The misunderstanding comes from the word “park,” says Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association and a trustee of the park. “It’s really a garden,” she says.
Founded in 1831 before what we now think of as public parks became common, it has maintained its tradition. Think of it like someone’s backyard if you were living in a suburb, or even parts of the city. We don’t expect that to be public.
But then there’s this Orwellian argument: Because the park is fenced in but not hidden by hedges, Harrison says it’s “visibly accessible.” Take that for a walk and watch it.
“Many people get shocked by the key business, but the locked gate is to protect the park,” says park trustee and former rector at nearby Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church Tom Pike. “It’s not to make it exclusive.”
Harrison says the church has long been involved with the Christmas carol ceremony, starting in the 19th century. Recently, due to advertising on social media, she says attendance has swelled.
A few years ago, the trustees tried serving free hot chocolate and cookies during the 60-minute opening. The refreshment came from star chef Danny Meyer, who operates a restaurant across from the park.
But things apparently got out of hand. “The word got out,” Harrison says, and more than 1,000 visitors “overwhelmed” the park. People were just looking for the Meyer freebies.
“We had to stop that.”
There will be no giveaways this year.
Throwing open the gates
New Yorkers on the edge of park said Thursday they liked the mystery of non-admittance. “Every time they open a park, someone destroys it,” said Philomena Guilmette, 32, of Queens. This park remained beautiful, as far as she could see.
Few people are allowed in, but many walk their dogs along the fences — leaving visible traces of their defecations on the sidewalk, their urine darkening the rose-colored fence base. “It’s like the Westminster dog show around here,” says Linda Moody, a retired teacher walking her Cavalier King Charles along Gramercy Park North.
On the corner across from Meyer’s restaurant, some employees gather for smoke breaks and snacks. Travis Harris, 25, a line cook, says the employees are invited into the park for a Halloween party.
Does it bother him not to be allowed in more regularly? “To be honest,” he says, seated on the inches-wide concrete base of the fence, “I don’t care.”
On Saturday, for those who do, the gates will open. Visitors will be able to walk the narrow gravel paths, past the low bushes. Harrison says she’s been getting about 20 emails a day this week from people excited to attend.
“A lot of the old timers probably hate it,” she says of the often crowded ceremony. But the night will proceed. “I think we should be welcoming.”
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