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.