Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A little history of Gramercy Park
(Or, getting to know my 'hood)

While I was doing Proquest research on Kips Bay for my movie theater piece, I came across a New York Times article by Charles de Kay from 1905 about my neighborhood: Gramercy. I have to admit that I am not Gramercy's biggest fan. I don't really know any of the bars or restaurants near my place because I tend to seek out other neighborhoods for entertainment, notably the East Village, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side. Apparently, I've written off everything to the north and west...

There is one little bar near my apartment, called Three Steps, that I've visited twice. The second time, the bartender told us about her acting career--the highlights being a topless appearance on an HBO show and an upcoming movie about a circus freak show--before offering to take us back to the bathroom for some illicit substances. Not exactly my scene, nor Gramercy's. With the exception of that incident, I would describe the neighborhood as a little bland, a little generic. A place for people who want to be in Manhattan close to the Village, but who don't want to pay monster-sized rents.

Anyway, I came across this old article on the neighborhood and discovered some interesting details about the 'hood and its private park, which looks beautiful from outside its gates-- only those living on its borders have keys to enter the fenced-in block-sized park and wander its paths. Even back in 1905, Gramercy had the last remaining private park in the City:

Outsiders are they, rank outsiders, and one can see on their faces a trace of indignation that they, too, cannot play about that splashing fountain, which seems so thin to us today, and disport themselves under the shade of the trees. For this private recreation ground is open only to the owners or occupiers of the houses round about who are compelled by the terms of their purchase or lease to contribute annually to a fund for the maintenance of the park...

[G]enerally speaking the exclusiveness that began fourscore years ago has been maintained, and Gramercy Park today is still a little haven of quiet.

Yes, and still today in 2009. In 1905, Gramercy was being invaded by clubs: the Players Club ("for actors and lovers of the drama"), Columbia University Alumni Club, and the National Arts Club. Columbia has since moved on to the university club cluster near Grand Central, but the other two remain in their mansion dwellings around the Park.

The article seeks to answer the question of the origins of "Gramercy," a corruption of the name given to it by the Dutch who settled the area. The area used to consist of a hill and stream that were called Crummashie Vly and Crummashie Kop. "Crummashie" morphed into "Gramercy" over time. The article says:

[T]here is in English the old word "cramesy" for red or crimson, a word that is known in French and Dutch; so that if the hill where the park now is was of red clay and in the Fall covered with crimson foliage it might have been called by the first settlers Cramesy Kop.

I like that image. It makes me like the neighborhood a wee bit more.

The area was first a 20-acre farm owned by James Duane in 1780, then was purchased by Bank of Commerce founder Samuel Ruggles, whose son divided the land into parcels and sold them off. The private park was landscaped, and the fountain (then valued at $3,000) placed there in 1851. That would be $75K in today's dollars.

These are the illustrations accompanying the article. Things really haven't changed much... well, maybe the hats.

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