Central Park in Autumn

CP - city and trees

It’s no secret to anyone who has read my blog posts that I adore Central Park. New York City’s jewel, it occupies a surprisingly large rectangle in the center of Manhattan. Its geometric edges belie the diverse topography within the park itself – pick a different entrance and a different segment of the park each time you enter and you might think you were in an entirely new place. Not only does the park change within its sections, it changes dramatically with each season, and depending on the weather, even within each season. For this dérive (an unplanned walk within an urban environment), I entered the park at its southwest corner on a cool late-Autumn day.

This corner of Central Park is surrounded by the hectic confusion of Columbus Circle, with the budding skyscrapers of Billionaire’s Row along the south end, and Time Warner Center and 15 Central Park South along the west. Walking into the park here (once you have passed the horde of bicycle rental peddlers) is an immediate escape from the traffic and crowds. It takes longer for the trees to change to their autumn colors in the city compared to areas right outside – or even those farther south – because of the “heat island” effect of all the concrete. Once the trees in Central Park begin to turn, however, they really show off. The experience was walking through the park this time of the year is uniquely engaging. The crunching of leaves beneath your feet is an auditory reminder of the season (as long as you take off your ear buds).  The burst of yellow, orange, and red leaves in the foreground is a visual treat, highlighted by the stately apartment buildings in the background.

Wandering through the lower end of the park, I heard the Central Park Carousel before I saw it. There has been a carousel in this spot in the park since 1871, this fourth one having been there since 1951. It was built in 1908, and lived in Coney Island before being moved to Central Park. It has 57 hand-carved horses and two chariots. The Carousel is open every day of the year, weather permitting. The Carousel has to be ridden to be experienced – like the rest of New York City, it is fast!

Just east of the Carousel is the Central Park Dairy, a fanciful building that looks like it was taken from a fairy tale, once a source of fresh milk for city kids. Now it’s one of five information centers and gift shops in the park. Just past the Dairy, still heading east, is one of my favorite statues in the park – Balto the husky. Balto led a pack of sled dogs to carry diphtheria medication 1000 miles between Nome and Anchorage when a serious epidemic broke out among children in Alaska. The heroic dogs became famous, and this statue was installed only 10 months after the event. Appropriately, the patina on this inviting bronze statue is worn from legions of children sitting on his back.

Continuing east but curving a bit south again, I was once again charmed by the sound of a park icon before seeing it – the Delacorte Clock near the Central Park Zoo. Given to the Park by George Delacorte (who also donated the Alice in Wonderland statue and the incomparable Delacorte Theater, home of Shakespeare in the Park) in 1965, this clock with a moveable animal sculpture carousel can be experienced every day on the hour and half hour from 8 AM to 6 PM. It plays nursery tunes most of the year, while a penguin, hippo, elephant, kangaroo, bear, and goat dance around with musical instruments and two monkeys strike the bell. During the end of the year, the music switches over to holiday tunes.

In my opinion, a person could spend several lifetimes in New York City, and never grow tired of Central Park. Always changing, it provides a way to stay in touch with our animal nature while surrounded by the buildings and endless activities that humans have created – allowing those of us who live in New York City to be stimulated or calmed, depending on what we need at any particular moment.

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Gramercy Park

Gramercy Park 3

Most neighborhoods in New York City have a story to tell – generally, it is a cyclical one, perhaps from farmland to residential, to tenements, and back to gentrification. There are however a few areas of New York City that have remained remarkably stable. One of these is the Gramercy Park neighborhood, which was created to be a fashionable residential location and has remained fashionable to the present. The neighborhood is roughly between Third and Park Avenue South, and between 18th and 22nd Streets. The Historic District encompasses some of this area, and nowadays the greater area might be considered to go all the way from 23rd to 14th Street, still between Third Avenue and Park Avenue South.

My favorite way to experience a neighborhood is to walk through it without a pre-planned route (a dérive). Emerging from the subway on Park Avenue South and 23rd Street, I immediately noticed that there are generally low lying buildings here. The Manhattan schist, or bedrock, is deeper in this part of the island, so generally there is nothing over 20 stories in height. Venturing farther from the subway stop, the quiet nature of this neighborhood becomes clear. Originally the area was swampy, but in 1831 the land was bought, and a plan for the area designed by, Samuel Ruggles. The most significant part of his plan included a private park, like the private garden squares popular then, and still found today, in London.

As you walk toward Gramercy Park, the tall and heavy fences with locked gates cannot be ignored. Gramercy Park is the only private park in Manhattan. It lies between 20th and 21st Streets (Gramercy Park South and North), and midblock streets called Gramercy Park East and West. As Lexington Avenue heads south, it hits a dead end at the park, and reemerges on its south side as Irving Place. Only the residents of the buildings facing the park have keyed access to the park and the value of an apartment that includes the right to a key is significantly increased compared to one close by but without access. Keys can be also checked out by members of the Player’s Club, and guests of the Gramercy Hotel can be escorted to the park by a hotel employee and let in, then picked up when they are ready to leave. The keys to these locks cannot be copied, the locks are changed every year, and hefty lost key fees insure that the park remains private. The keys are even individually numbered and coded.

The statue in the middle of the park is of Edwin Booth as Hamlet, one of the best Shakespearean actors of the 19th century (namesake of the Booth theatre – and brother to John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln). He lived at 16 Gramercy South and eventually gave the building for the formation of the Player’s Club. Every Christmas eve the park is opened to the public for caroling, so if you’re dying to be inside those locked gates, this is your one opportunity (or, you could buy a place with a key).

Walking around the perimeter of the park (outside the gates, of course!) the Gramercy Park Hotel, built in 1925, dominates the northern edge, while the western edge features a line of immaculate townhouses. E.B. White’s Stuart Little takes place on Gramercy Park, presumably in one of these homes. Most of New York City has some kind of interesting history waiting to be uncovered, but Gramercy Park seems to have more than most neighborhoods; for instance, Thomas Alva Edison and John Steinbeck once lived on the park. Nearby, Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace on E 20th Street is a National Historic Site.

While the idea of a gated private park in New York City does seem to go against our democratic ideals, it has certainly preserved the value of the residences facing Gramercy Park and stabilized the neighborhood. Of course, Central Park is open to all, and proximity to it can also significantly increase a home’s value. Gramercy is a quiet, pleasant neighborhood – on the cusp between midtown and downtown, but with some of the understated characteristics of streets in Carnegie Hill uptown.

Murray Hill

Murray Hill Empire

Have you ever watched an old movie or television program and heard someone’s phone number expressed as “Murray Hill” followed by five numbers (for instance, the Ricardos in I Love Lucy were at MH5-9975)? That telephone exchange once covered all of the east side of Manhattan, with an East 37th Street building serving as the hub. The Murray Hill neighborhood itself covers roughly the area between E. 34th and E. 40th Streets, between Madison and Third Avenues. After showing a customer a potential home recently, I took an unplanned walk (a dérive) to experience what it would be like to live or work in Murray Hill.

However, my first questions were: who was Murray and was there truly a hill (because I was unable to detect a significant one while walking the area)? In fact, Robert Murray was a Quaker, an Irish immigrant around the time of the American Revolution who became a successful shipping merchant and built a house on what would now be Park Avenue and 36th Street. The area would have been the limits of uptown Manhattan at that point, with farmland continuing north. At that point there was a hill (since leveled) and a reservoir existed where Bryant Park and the New York Public Library now sit. For a time in the 19th Century, Murray Hill was the destination for many of the industrial age’s titans to build their mansions and townhouses, before the birth of Millionaire’s Row further uptown on Fifth Avenue with views of the newly created Central Park.

MurrayHillChrysler

Starting on Park Avenue and 40th Street, magnificent Grand Central Station looms just a few blocks north, the Chrysler Building emerging behind it and to the side – looking like a cross between a skyscraper and an Art Deco fairytale castle. One of the things I appreciated immediately was that the many shorter buildings in the area create multiple opportunities for iconic views of the Chrysler Building to the north and east, and the Empire State Building to the south and west. The high rise buildings, like the one I was showing to a customer, often have several apartments with perfectly framed views of these buildings. In fact, these views are made more spectacular by close proximity. Wandering the streets in no particular order, the sudden unexpected views of these iconic skyscrapers was a real delight.

MurrayHilltownhouses

While the avenues in this neighborhood are bustling and full of restaurants, bars, and shops, the streets tend to be surprisingly quiet. Many of the street blocks contain rows of townhouses or mid-rise buildings, with the high rise buildings tending to be on the Avenues. Eventually I came across the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison at 36th Street. I happened upon it from the side, on 36th Street, and first noticed the sculpted lionesses guarding this side entrance. I was not surprised to discover later that they were by the same artist who created the better-known lions at the front of the New York Public Library a few blocks away. The magnificent main building was created to house the manuscript collection of Pierpont Morgan, a prominent financier in the beginning of the 20th century. His son later gave his father’s collection and the building for the creation of the Morgan Library and Museum. Although best known for its illuminated manuscripts and sketches, it also houses original handwritten musical scores and lyrics, from Mozart to Bob Dylan (his first draft of “Blowin’ in the wind,” written on a scrap of paper).

Heading out of the neighborhood into Kips Bay to the east, I realized that the proximity to the Queens Midtown Tunnel could make this a very convenient neighborhood for those who regularly head to Long Island. With Grand Central Terminal only a few blocks away, it is also well situated for people who use Metro North to go to upstate or to Connecticut. Murray Hill struck me as an interesting midtown neighborhood, with options for high rise living with killer skyscraper views as well as peaceful townhouse living with a view of leafy trees.