For nearly 170 years, Gramercy Park has been a leafy, gated enclave in lower Manhattan, a refuge from urban cacophony. Surrounded by elegant brick buildings, the East Side park anchors a rich, largely white neighborhood that was home to Herman Melville and Edith Wharton in the 19th century, and now includes such celebrities as Julia Roberts and Winona Rider.
Manhattan's only private park has always been off limits to most New Yorkers, save those lucky few who own or live in apartments surrounding the two-acre enclave. While there have been periodic grumblings about elitism, tensions that erupted last year have sparked a civil rights lawsuit that landed in federal court here Thursday.
In two incidents, groups of black and Latino schoolchildren invited to visit the park by residents were asked to leave by Sharen Benenson, chairwoman of the Gramercy Park Trust, which runs the square.
Benenson, who has long fought to keep the area private, said outside groups are forbidden and she was only upholding the rules. But teachers and students recall the encounter differently, saying Benenson told them officiously that Gramercy Park is "not for these kind of kids." The first time, students angrily refused to budge. In the second instance, teachers feared police would come and they took their students out of the park.
"We thought what she had done was racist," said Ingrid Curniffe, a 10th-grader at nearby Washington Irving High School.
"I took it she meant: 'You're not white, so get out,' " added classmate Mayra Young.
Benenson, who along with another trustee has been named as a defendant in the civil rights case, has denied making such statements. She has said any suggestion of racial discrimination is "silly."
The idea that she would humiliate children is "madness," said James Benenson, her husband, adding, "I've never heard her say a cross word to one, black or white. This lawsuit is bizarre."
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Lynch threw out a motion by Benenson's attorneys to dismiss the case, saying there was potentially "big evidence" of discrimination for a federal jury to explore--most notably Benenson's alleged comments to teachers and students.
Moreover, the judge said, there are serious allegations that trustees have applied the rules banning large park gatherings in a discriminatory manner. While the black and Latino children were told to leave, he noted, Gramercy Park has traditionally allowed groups of predominantly white people from a nearby synagogue and church to use the area on special occasions.
"We have a vague set of rules here," Lynch said. "And a reasonable question might be: Are whites allowed in [but] minorities are not?"
Beyond the allegations of racism, the case underscores the touchy debate over open space and who gets to use it in one of the world's most overcrowded cities. Controversies over gated communities, private beaches and other venues have flared from California to Connecticut, but Gramercy Park has had an unbroken history of exclusivity ever since businessman Samuel Ruggles got title to the marshy site and transformed it into a neighborhood that resembled a 19th century London square.
An 1831 deed gave residents exclusive right to enjoy the space, along with keys to unlock the wrought-iron gates, and bars outsiders. Ruggles insisted that it remain private, and an 1885 letter to property owners said: "You have no idea of the difficulty caused by the admission to the park of persons who have no right to enter, and who are generally careless of the rights of others."
The rules bar parties and private ceremonies, though there are exceptions: Even though most New Yorkers will probably never set foot in Gramercy Park, regulations permit key-holders to invite an unspecified number of guests. This is the rule that set off last year's furor.
Members of the National Arts Club had invited teachers at Washington Irving High School and PS/IS 217 on Roosevelt Island to conduct field trips last April and June in Gramercy Park. The historic institution, which sits on the park's southern border, has long enjoyed access to the square.
Aldon O. James, the club's president, is an enthusiastic booster of the arts, but he has also been something of a neighborhood gadfly. In recent years, he has sued Benenson over various park policies and has been a driving force behind the current lawsuit.
Some residents believe their highly personal clash has prevented a settlement of the case, and Lynch admonished both sides Thursday not to let "the long-running Gramercy Park wars" obstruct a resolution.
The lawsuit was initiated by William Samuels, a resident who was disturbed by a community newspaper account of the first incident. Plaintiffs, who also include teachers and students, are seeking unspecified damages, as well as the removal of Benenson and another trustee, who backed her actions, from the three-member board.
Benenson counters that Gramercy Park has a right to maintain its privacy and enforce historic rules. Witnesses said in affidavits that they observed the schoolchildren behaving boisterously and trampling plants.
The gathering "doesn't look like a learning group to me," Benenson said to one teacher, according to court records. "It looks like an exercise class."
James, the club president, who was present on the first field trip, said he tried to get Benenson to change her mind and insisted the children had a right to visit the park like any other guests. He was stunned by her alleged statement that the park was not for "these kind of kids."
"I thought to myself that she was referring to the race and ethnicity of the children," James said. "It was a very embarrassing and shocking thing."
The plaintiffs say they want radical changes in the way the park is governed. They hope a court will rule that trustees must regularly stand for election, instead of current rules allowing them to serve for life.
"I really find it hard to believe," Lynch said Thursday, "that a settlement cannot be worked out that would allow children to feel welcome in this park."
On the morning that 55 Washington Irving High School students visited the park, teachers recalled, it was rainy and the square was empty. Why would anyone object to their visit? they wondered.
On Thursday, as a gentle rain fell in the park, a resident shook his head at the court battle. Nobody condones racism, he said, but privacy also is an issue.
"Right now, no one is sitting in this park," he noted. "It's beautiful, it's quiet. It's kind of special. And that's the point."