New York. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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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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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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