Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life on the other side of the fence

Despite having lived in New York over two years, there are still many places I haven't explored. These range from places I don't go because I'm concerned for my safety (the South Bronx, the TGI Fridays in Times Square, etc) to places I don't go because they're price prohibitive to a publishing assistant's budget (The Russian Tea Room, Megu, any restaurant above 57th that has a French sounding name). It's also just a large city, and it'll probably be another two years before I make it to all the places on my list. (Case in point, I still need to visit the Tenement Museum.)

However, I can say with confidence that I know the areas around where I work (Flatiron District, Union Square, Madison Square Park, and Gramercy) intimately. I tend to leave no cheap Thai lunch restaurant untasted or potential reading spot park bench untried. There has been, up to this point, one exception to my explorations. Less than three blocks from my office there is a park that until yesterday I had never stepped foot in. This is, of course, because it is Gramercy Park: the only private park in all of Manhattan. This means that the 2-acre, carefully maintained property is surrounded by a high metal fence. Only trustees of the park, who pay an annual fee and live in the expensive apartments and townhouses surrounding the park have keys. Normally, a couple of friends from work and I simply walk the border of the fence with the rest of the have-nots, occasionally stealing wistful glimpses through the fence at the lovely landscaping and quiet benches just beyond our reach.

But yesterday, our fortunes changed (well not substantively, but for the purposes of this story). A week or so ago, I was put in charge of training a new intern whose grandmother knows the owner of my company (who, incidentally, lives in Gramercy). As it turns out, during her time here, she is living with her grandmother, who happens to loan her the key to the park for her to go running in the morning. Luckily, she's a really cool girl (and not just because she fulfilled a New York fantasy for my friends and I). When she discovered our interest in the park on a routine coffee walk, she offered to let us in. Once we were assured that we fit all dress code requirements, we agreed. The key itself, which we had built up in our minds to be an ancient, skeleton key turned out to be rather mundane. (As my insider informed me, they change the locks annually.) However, this small key opened up a world of garden enchantment. Inside the confines of the iron gate, the air seemed sweeter. Despite the trees, it even seemed sunnier. The squirrels (of which there were a surprising number) seemed less bedraggled than your average urban tree rat.
You don't get this sort of whimsical statue in the humdrum public parks. Or you do, but the novelty inevitably wears off.

There was a sign by the entrance informing us that Gramercy Park is neither a "beach nor a playground." There were several other rules forbidding everything from dogs to frisbees, to encourage park goers to comport themselves appropriately. There was also an asterisk on the rule list assuring readers that this was only a partial list of guidelines. Persumbally you get the full set in the form of a bible accompanying your key every year. We started to worry that we were doing something wrong. Clearly, we were the riff raff that was never meant to be on that side of the fence. One old woman, who we decided is Arlene Harrison, the self proclaimed mayor of Gramercy Park ( wouldn't stop tracking us with her eyes. We tried to blend, but the agape mouths and the fact that I couldn't stop taking cell phone pictures clearly marked us as outsiders.

I don't know if you can read these (I have a really cheap phone that I hardly ever use the camera feature on), but it says that in order to "protect people and plantings" you are only allowed to play with soft foam balls in a small square of gravel. Naturally you're not permitted on the grass ANYWHERE.

Although I might have made it on some Gramercy Park trustees hit list, the experience was definitely worth it. There's something about being restricted from something that just makes it that much more enticing. The benches felt more comfortable than any park bench I'd ever sat on, no doubt partially because of the warmth of the jealous stares coming through the bars at me. A maintenance man left the gate open while blowing leaves off the sidewalk around the park entrance and we saw a man try to sneak in before being promptly sent away. It was nice to know, so long as we stuck close to our key holder (who was allowed to bring up to 6 guests at a time), we technically belonged there as much as anyone else.

I don't really think this one needs a caption.


  1. I'm glad you got a taste of what you've been missing! It sounds like a really hoity toity park though...I think out of principle you should boycott it. It's not that you don't have a key, it's that you'd rather not waste your time there. Hehehe.

  2. That is amazing! Amazing because of how "proper" it is and amazing that there is such a have and have not of the place. Loved reading your little review of it!