'They Can Look In': An Interview with the Warden of Gramercy Park

Arlene Harrison during her NY1 debut.
Arlene Harrison during her NY1 debut.
Screenshot via NY1

Arlene Harrison is the Mayor and Enforcer of Gramercy Park, so it stands to reason that anyone who has beef with the garden’s raft of strict rules — including that non-keyholders shall not enter — take it up with her. Following a NY1 story on Harrison, the Village Voice had some quibbles with those rules, and though Harrison didn’t respond in time to comment on our original post, she was more than happy to chat for a follow-up.

Harrison is very nice. She spent 33 years as a teacher setting up programs for children in the city’s psychiatric hospitals, and only stopped when a traumatic head injury forced her to retire from the profession in 1997. Ensuring that operations in the park and its environs run smoothly is now her full-time job, and she spoke with the Voice about what, exactly, that means to her.

Gramercy Park has a reputation for being excessively exclusive and exclusionary. Do you agree with that assessment?

The problem with the piece on television — I got a lot of reviews that I look beautiful. But I didn’t want that. I was told about the interview a month ago. What I did is I really, really prepared because my whole job now is setting up the future of the park and the residential neighborhood around it. I’m the steward of [Samuel] Ruggles' legacy, this gift that he gave us. I immersed myself in the history, just so that I could give a very focused view of the work we do here.

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[NY1 Reporter Michael Scotto] followed me around for two days. I knew it was going to be two minutes so I wasn’t under any illusion, but I didn’t want it to be about some blonde girl walking around with a clipboard. We do 10 charity events every single year. He didn’t have one of our projects. Not one! All he did was show the park and me walking around.

I wonder if the interest of the story was reinforcing the idea that the park is kind of snotty, and that the public isn’t allowed inside of it?

Here’s the deal. This guy Ruggles, in 1831, set aside two acres of his private property to set up this green space. This was the first idea of zoning, which didn’t begin until 1926, that was approved by the Supreme Court. So what happened with the Industrial Revolution is there was an increase in traffic and noise and pollution, and the commercial, the industrial and the residential had no separate areas at all. This is the guy who did the first separation. He took his own private property, which he purchased, and he set up an open green space. But he didn’t just put a green space in the middle of the South Bronx. He set up lots that surround the green space, and he said that...land around the park shall remain residential.

The courts through the years have backed that idea that the community surrounding this acreage would pay an assessment that would pay for the operations, preservation and maintenance of the park. The people, the lot owners, who surround the park, those buildings pay an assessment. The trustees work with the block association to manage that piece of property. The people and the lot owners elect the trustees.

By the way, the fence surrounding the park is not to keep people out. It would have been a wall. We would have put shrubbery that would keep people out. He put a fence only in 1844, to protect the plantings. And we have kept up that idea, to make the park visibly accessible. That’s a term that the Japanese have, called ‘borrowed landscape.’ That means if you have a house out in Colorado, and you have a view of mountains, even though you don’t own the mountains, that’s borrowing from God or from nature or whatever. And that park, we have made sure that people from all over enjoy it. I always give the analogy, if I go to Florida, I want to see the ocean. I would never go in the ocean, but I don’t want to look at the parking lot. It visually enhances your life.

I would argue that generally people are free to go walk in the mountains or swim in the ocean.

Well that’s what makes this different. He set this up as a front yard, which is private property, for the lot owner buildings that are residential surrounding the park. They don’t actually own it, but they pay for its maintenance and preservation. I’ve lived in New York all my life — I’ve gone into Central Park maybe once. But every time I go by I’m very happy to look on this green plot of land. I don’t have to go in it, you know? It is people’s private property, it is a front yard, it’s the only one like it in the world, quite frankly.

But let me tell you, around the rim of that park is a place to sit all around. We plant shrubbery all the time, and we make sure that it’s visibly accessible to people, so they can look in. We could have put shrubbery so you couldn’t see a damn thing. We purposefully didn’t wall it off. Hundreds of people sit there. And they see it, and they enjoy it, and they love it. And they don’t have to go in it. But they can see it as well as you can see it from inside.

To your analogy about the ocean, you said you don’t want to go in, but a lot of people do. So what would be the harm in opening it for, say, an hour a week?

We open the park Christmas Eve, we have thousands of people come for that. I do a fall event, but I purposefully don’t do a Halloween thing because it attracts all these crazies. I don’t want a bunch of crazies with scary costumes scaring the little ones.

I do open the park from time to time. We do invite people. We have a Menorah lighting.

So how many times per year is it open to the public?

We’re saying officially, that park is open Christmas Eve from 6 to 7 p.m. It’s the lot owners' private property, so when it’s something that is a tradition for many many years, we honor that tradition.

Obviously the park is famous for having a lot of rules, and you’re there most days. What is the most egregious rule-breaking you’ve seen?

People jumping over the fence in the middle of the night.

How often does that happen?

I can’t say how often, but it used to happen in the summer when these younger kids were home from college, or around. There has been vandalism.

People who have weekend houses, or people who have any house that is private property — this is private property. The lot owners make the rules. I’m just sort of the enforcer of the rules.

As the person who maybe cares more about the park than anyone else, what makes it different from the other open spaces in the city?

It’s an ornamental park. It’s not made for recreation. It’s just for quiet relaxation, meditation, read a book, get a cup of coffee, sit out there. And it does something for the soul and for your spirit. We’ve had hundreds of very well known people, and they say that it’s such a special environment that it makes people feel spiritual and want to do good.

Very few people who live here, by the way, actually purchase keys. Only 236 people have personal keys, because wouldn’t you much rather look at a garden when you leave your apartment than look at highrises? It does something for how you feel.

You mentioned coffee — I thought no food or drinks were allowed?

No alcohol. Quiet pursuits. People love to walk. The children love to just play quietly, and they make lifetime friends instead of being on a swing that goes back and forth. They interact with each other. Their friends become permanent friends. They form relationships like we did in the old days when we played on the block. That makes it quite special.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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