Around 12:30 a.m. on April 4, 2006 a silver 2002 Saturn with New Jersey plates crashed through the wrought-iron gate on the north side of Gramercy Park. Gramercy Park is a locked part in the heart of New York City: only certain people have keys. It is fancy, beautiful and closed. The driver did $60,000 worth of damage, taking out a new fiberglass planter and damaging the park gate. The Park is located at the south end of Lexington Avenue, at 21st Street, where Lexington abruptly goes from concrete to green, surprising more than just this New Jersey driver. In fact, the security guard at the Gramercy Park Hotel said he saw the whole thing. “It happens all the time,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The car didn’t stop, backed up and headed the wrong way down 21st Street, which is a one way street, before making a U-turn and leaving.”
Personally, I hope for the surprise of liberation more frequently than it appears, but I’ll take what I can get. I take the middle ground on whether the pavement suddenly ended or the park suddenly began. I am one of many who hope we can have it both ways. As I strolled past Gramercy Park the Sunday morning of this particular gatecrashing, I realized that the gate was not only damaged but also open. I could go into the park. I would not have to view the perfectly planted red tulips through the bars, but up-close-and-personal. I would not have to manage both the green of the park and the green of my envy of those who hold the keys to the usually private green-space. The park is only accessible to residents of the Gramercy Neighborhood Associates and to people who stay overnight in one of the surrounding boutique hotels. The Hoi Polloi do not get keys. There are only three days in the year that the park is open to the public: Christmas, Yom Kippur and “Gramercy Park Day.” I guess Silver Saturn from Jersey couldn’t wait. Gramercy Park Day is scheduled for May 31 this year, from 9:30 – 1:30, although I read on the many websites that last year it either did not open at all or that the day it was supposed to open to the public was a matter of some confusion. Likewise the last few years many complained that it did not open on Christmas or the Day of Atonement either. You would think that the key holders would want a day of atonement themselves just for locking away a park in a city with a dearth of green.
So, last Sunday, with a brain full of glasses and gates and disputes between the concrete and the green, and who would have sway and who would not, I happened upon the open gate. I began to laugh: It was the second Sunday after Easter. I all but jumped over the broken gate and got into the park, feeling guilty and worried that a cop was going to stop me any second. “What are you doing here?” the cop would say. I would answer something snippy, like in the Easter story, “where have they taken the body, you know the body of the man who crashed the gate.” The cop would not be kind: he would say that I was not allowed in here except on the three days mentioned. I would take the opportunity of dawn and quarrel with him. I would say that the last year the legitimate opening failed. Plus, what is a legitimate opening? The cop would remember that he enjoyed a good argument. We would give that half smile to each other that permits officials and unofficials to chat. We would have a game, the kind that becomes urban legend. No cop ever came. I just walked around the park’s circled, graveled, well-combed walkway the first time with a well-defended trepidation. Then I walked a second time and a third, practically breaking into a dance. No one was there. No cop, no Savior, no gamed conversation, just me. The tulips were there. The expensive blue flowers whose name I don’t know were there. The raked gravel marked the paths in the way that speaks of money. I had a chance to think of more than the usual.
I wondered about the privatization of parks. Gramercy is the gold standard. But Bryant Park is also a new “public/private cooperation.” Soon Washington Square Park will have the Tish Fountain at its center, although the movement grows to name it the “People’s Fountain.” Let the Tish’s pay for it if they must. But giving them the name and the privatization feels like more than the fountain, which is nearly priceless, is worth. I don’t know the guy who ran away from the scene of the crime. I know lots of people who go the wrong way on one-way streets. In fact, these people are my friends. These people are “the people” in whose name all of our fountains should be named. I have no idea which plays the lead in the play: the concrete or the green. I do know that if you go the wrong way down a one-way street you see things better. I also know the truth embedded in the occasional liberation. May its tribe increase. Gates have nowhere near the power they think they do.
by Donna Schaper
Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church