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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.”

Rob Crilly is a foreign correspondent and writes about US politics.

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

Photo: Getty
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How Theresa May abandoned David Cameron's playbook – and paid a terrible price

Theresa May lost because she rejected Cameroonism, but now his approach to party management is keeping her alive. 

When she first became Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May took an almost indecent glee in rolling back the era of David Cameron. His chancellor and closest ally, George Osborne, was sacked and the manner of his departure was briefed to the press. The Cameroon chumminess with the media was replaced by a layer of frost. Cameron’s strategy of delivering austerity to the young while channelling every possible benefit to the old was abandoned, as was the conscious attempt to reach out to affluent ethnic minorities and social liberals.

Then on 8 June, it emerged that May had rolled back another Cameron project: the first Conservative parliamentary majority in two decades, squandered with three years of the parliament left to run.

Abandoning the Cameron project – to make the party if not appealing, then at least not actively repellent to social liberals – now looks like a strategic error. She and her aides bought into the David Goodhart thesis: that politics was dividing between “somewheres” – that is, people with a strong sense of place and identity – and “anywheres” – global citizens who largely cluster in big cities.

But what she underestimated is that so-called anywheres are just as defensive of their place and their values. And they angrily defected from the Conservatives in decisive fashion across the country, but most strikingly in Canterbury, where Labour won a seat that the Conservatives have held continuously since the Great Reform Act of 1832. That also helped eradicate the party from Bristol and Cardiff, both cities the Conservatives entered the campaign hoping to turn blue. 

In turning her fire on Britain’s over-65s through the “dementia tax” and restriction of winter fuel payments, Theresa May reduced the Conservative lead among the retired. That cost her party votes across the country, without gaining any support from the young. Turnout among voters over 65 dropped slightly on 2015, as grey voters, unwilling to back Labour but also unwilling to stick with the Conservatives, stayed at home.

Similarly, with just three words in her 2016 party conference speech – “citizens of nowhere” – May undid 11 years of good work among affluent ethnic minorities by David Cameron, who worked to reassure Britain’s ethnic middle classes that they were better served by voting with their economic interests, rather than against a Conservative Party still defined in the minds of many by Enoch Powell.

Her predecessor’s success in 2015 was not just devouring the Liberal Democrats, allowing the Conservatives to make a clean sweep of Cornwall and much of the south-west, but in eroding his party’s “ethnic penalty”.

Simply put, in 2015, rich brown Britons voted in much the same way as rich white ones. That shift helped the Conservatives win seats from Labour and turn a slew of marginals into what looked like fortresses. The result which summed up that quiet shift was that of Grant Shapps, the party’s then-chairman, who ended up with a majority of 12,153 in a seat that had been Labour-held until 2005.

For most ethnic minority voters, who tend to hold a second citizenship either spiritually or materially, May’s attacks on “citizens of the world” and her public embrace of Donald Trump contributed to a sense of unease. “It’s like the second affair,” one Conservative MP despaired to me; well-heeled minority voters who had trusted David Cameron when he said his party had changed were doubly angry when it reverted to type under May.

The result was the loss on 8 June of a number of seats where affluent ethnic minorities clustered in great numbers – in Battersea, in Bedford, in Croydon Central – and the collapse of super-majorities in others, such as Putney, Gloucester and Welwyn Hatfield, all of which are now within Labour’s grasp at the next election.

May amassed a larger overall share of the vote – 42 per cent – than Cameron. But most in her party privately argue that, thanks to the collapse of Ukip and the continuing woes of the Liberal Democrats, this was an election in which the big two parties had a larger prize to fight over – and Jeremy Corbyn, not May, did the better job of thriving in the new environment.

That argument is bolstered by analysis by David Cowling, the BBC’s former head of research, which shows that May got a smaller share of the two-party total, at 51 per cent, than Cameron did in 2015, with 55 per cent.

And yet, she endures, after a fashion. The settlement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party means that while May is certainly not strong, she is stable. Her government can last the full five years, should her party wish. Although no one expects that lengthy a spell in Downing Street, May’s political lifespan now looks likely to run longer than was thought.

The perception of May within the Tory ranks has, ironically, come full circle. At first, Conservative MPs supported her not out of any great affection – she has never cultivated a phalanx of loyalists as George Osborne did – but because the other candidates had either been blown up or had blown themselves up. Grudging admiration turned into respect when their constituents seemed to fall in love with her. But as her maladroit campaign and her tone-deaf response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy turned voters against May, MPs, too, reverted to their original assessment.

Only dissatisfaction with the possible replacements keeps her in place. Conservative MPs look at the available field of talent at the top of the Cabinet table and find them all wanting – either through lack of talent, or, in the case of Amber Rudd, a majority so small as to make her leadership an ongoing psychodrama about her own survival. Small wonder that the two candidates most frequently talked up – Philip Hammond and David Davis – are largely spoken of as interim solutions, better placed to promote new faces in a bid to revive the party.

For that reason, May has cause to thank her predecessor. David Cameron’s reluctance to reshuffle his Cabinet means that the top of the Conservative Party looks much like it did when he first became leader. And it is the lack of a fresh alternative to Theresa May that means Conservative MPs adhere to her, not out of affection, but for want of anything better.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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