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.
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.”