Long-simmering feud between Gramercy Park elites erupts again

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Arlene Harrison has ruled Manhattan’s only private park — where only elites with old-money names like Tara Rockefeller or celebrities like Jimmy Fallon have keys — with what her enemies say is an iron fist since 1997.

But a long-simmering feud with her chief nemesis, Aldon James, the former president of the Gramercy Park National Arts Club, has erupted again.

James accuses her of enacting even more rules at the already heavily-regulated two acres that Harrison, 78, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, patrols almost every day with a clipboard.

Plaques outline the rules, some of which can be seen from the outside and others that contain longer lists that are hidden from view.

“It’s outrageous,” James said of the rules which forbid, among other things, smoking, drinking alcohol, bike riding, taking photos, walking a dog, playing sports, throwing a Frisbee or feeding wildlife. Some of the newer rules, he said, include a ban on any type of musical entertainment.

Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, has been accused of being too strict with rules at the park.
Stephen Yang

The public is banned from the park. Anyone who slips in illegally often doesn’t know a key is also needed to exit the park, and get locked in.

“Arlene’s making it too exclusive and hardly anyone comes here anymore,” James said.

James, who gives his age as “senior citizen,” also told The Post that the park has gotten shabby even though Gramercy Park residents pay $350 for an individual key and buildings in the park radius pay $10,000 for two keys.

The park, created in 1831, is held in common by the residents in 39 surrounding townhouses, apartment buildings, and clubs, and can only be accessed by them. It’s managed by five trustees of the Gramercy Park Trust.

A list of rules for visitors of Gramercy Park.
A list of rules for visitors of Gramercy Park.

More troubling, however, are questions about the hefty six-figure salary Harrison, who calls herself the “mayor of Gramercy Park,” has drawn in recent years as head of the non-profit Gramercy Park Block Association, according to its tax filings.

In 2019, she made $119,312. In 2015, when the association took in $368,966 in donations, Harrison’s salary was $165,385.

Harrison says she works 70 hours a week at the park but it’s not clear exactly what she does.

“All my friends in the area tell me they only see her out there in the morning for an hour or so at a time sitting around,” James said. “I’ve never seen her there 70 hours a week. She hasn’t picked up a rake or a shovel. They have cameras all over the park. Get the video from them. Can they prove she’s there 70 hours a week? I’d lay my life down to say no.”

Harrison has said she does outreach work on behalf of the non-profit group but James said there is no indication that such work would involve up to 70 hours of labor.

According to its website, the association’s stated mission is “to educate the population of the area known as Gramercy Park as to the safety and security issues in this historic neighborhood, and to bring about civic betterment in order to promote the well-being of those who live and/or work in the greater Gramercy Park area.”

Resident Alton James claims that Harrison and other association members "run this place like the Mafia."
Resident Alton James claims that Harrison and other association members “run this place like the Mafia.”
Helayne Seidman

Yet the association has made donations that don’t seem to fit its platform, such as $15,000 they gave Blue Lives Matter in Staten Island in 2018.

Harrison, association vice president Tara Rockefeller, treasurer Norman Kurlan and officer Kamel Boutros did not return messages seeking comment,

“Arlene and her pals are very secretive,” James said. “They run this place like the Mafia.”

The two have long slung mud at each other. James called her and other park trustees out in 2000 when James helped lead a field trip of minority kids from a nearby public school to the park. He said one of the trustees phoned the police to report the students because the trustee said ‘this is a private trust not for these kind of kids.” James told a local paper called the Villager and they published a story. Businessman and political activist Bill Samuels, who was on the board of the Arts Club for years, read the story and confronted the chairman of the park trustees.

Harrison was not a trustee of the Gramercy Park Trust but as president of the Block Association “she supported all of them in throwing the kids out of the park,” Samuels said. “I was in shock that this kind of racism was happening right out in the open.”

Samuels was so angry he filed a suit in federal court against the Gramercy Park Trust alleging they discriminated against the children.

“I spoke to some of the parents at the time,” Samuels said. “Their kids came home in tears.”

Samuels said his lawyers asked for a $15,000 settlement for each of the children and for the right for them to visit the park every Martin Luther King Day.

Instead, he said, the park trustees ponied up $40,000 for each student in exchange for not having the right to come visit once a year.

“Arlene was one of the key people who didn’t want the kids there,” Samuels said. “Aldon James is a hero.”

Gramercy Park residents pay $350 for a key to the park.
Gramercy Park residents pay $350 for a key to the park.
Helayne Seidman

James also has his detractors. He was pushed out as the National Arts Club’s president after a long and bitter 2013 legal battle, in which he paid $950,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that he ran the club for his own benefit, although he had doubled the club’s membership in his 25 years in charge. He told The Post he was innocent of any wrongdoing and said his run-ins with Harrison over the years are partly to blame for what he said was ill will toward him.

James took a Post reporter on a tour of the park, once called “one of Manhattan’s crown jewels,” but which which looked somewhat unkempt Friday. The gravel paths looked as though they hadn’t been raked in weeks. The foliage and plantings looked as if someone took just the bare minimum of care.

Many of the park benches, especially the one containing a plaque in memory of Constance Gibson, the legendary park trustee who oversaw the park for about 50 years until her death at age 94 in 1997, are smudged with bird droppings or dirt.

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