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How the "mayor" of Gramercy Park keeps New York’s most exclusive spot private

Arlene Harrison runs a tight ship managing Gramercy Park.

The rain is spotting on the pavement as Arlene Harrison bowls past the doorman of her grand New York address. It is shortly before eight o’clock on a grey winter’s morning. Her blond bob shines in the gloom.

“Yes, you do look British,” she says without breaking stride. “Let’s go.”

Her kingdom lies just across the street. “This is the key,” she says, grinning as she loosens a sliver of nickel alloy tied to her wrist. It is so precious she wears it to bed. “Would you like a picture of it?” she asks.

The key slips into the lock, opening the gate to Gramercy Park, the only private park in Manhattan. That fact alone makes the 383 keys that unlock it among the most sought-after items in New York real estate. They offer entry into a world of symmetrical lawns, a place where visitors can see the sky, so often obscured in this city. Harrison walks its gravel paths every morning, checking that things are as they should be for the residents of the townhouses and co-operatives on the edges of its open space.

Once it was home to artists and thinkers: well connected, but not necessarily wealthy. Thomas Edison lived on the square. Today it is hedge-fund managers, movie stars and the last of the elderly couples who bought property before the real-estate market exploded. Both Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke have owned nickel keys in recent years.

Harrison has lived here for the past 44 years, ever since her then husband bought an apartment for $69,000. Her entry into park politics came when one of her two sons was mugged in the early 1990s.

Officially, she is the president of the Gramercy Park Block Association. Unofficially, she prefers the title of mayor, though “watchdog” might suit her better – an enforcer of rules, constantly warding off the developers whose skyscrapers might overlook the park.

She freezes, focusing on an unfamiliar figure beneath the spreading branches of a plane tree. If she had hackles, they would be up. “Oh, it’s OK,” she says finally. “He’s from the hotel. I can see the doorman letting him out.”

Harrison knows every keyholder, just as she recognises every grey squirrel scratching the lawn. It’s just how Samuel Ruggles, the park’s creator, would have wanted it. He laid down a covenant when in 1831 he set aside two acres of land for residents to use “as a place of common resort and recreation”, banning all commercial activities. A fence soon followed. The park has been locked since 1844.

Keeping the park private gets tougher every year. Harrison refused Robert De Niro and Woody Allen permission to film here. But the internet is a different proposition. The latest threat is Airbnb. After photos of the park appeared on Google Maps, Harrison discovered that apartments were being rented with free use of a park key. She has embarked on a discreet round of phone calls, running newcomers through the hefty ledger of rules for keyholders.

Harrison’s biggest fear is developers. Three years ago she saw off plans to open a bar by deploying line 81 of the original covenant, which bans anything “offensive to neighbours”.

“We wanted to say: ‘Don’t f**k with us.’”

One day she will step down, and a successor is being groomed. Speculators with an eye on the park will not be sorry to see her gone. Over coffee at the Maialino Restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel, her de facto office, she makes one final demand.

“Write what you like,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be complimentary. Just make me sound fierce.”

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.