Gramercy is no walk in the park.
That, of course, refers to the gated oasis — the only private park in Manhattan — accessible by no one but the key-holding residents who live on its perimeter.
Years ago, the serene neighborhood was home to a who’s who of New York literati. Edith Wharton was born at 80 E. 21st St. Herman Melville, after the critical and commercial failure of “Moby-Dick,” lived at 150 E. 18th St. before retreating to East 26th Street, where he lived until his death in 1891. O. Henry, pen name of Williams Sydney Porter, the popular and prolific short-story writer, moved to 55 Irving Pl. in 1903, a year after arriving in the city after his release from an Ohio prison.
The residents now are more likely to be families. Arlene Harrison, founder and president of the Gramercy Block Association, has seen a number of young families move into the area in the past 15 years.
“When I was raising my sons here 30 years ago, there were only a few families with children,” she said. These days, the block association, which boasts 2,000 members, counts 300 families among them.
While the area near the park is home to past and present boldface names — everyone from Oscar Wilde to Winona Ryder have lived there — a grittier bohemian spirit echoes a few blocks east around Stuyvesant Square. Downtown club kids and wild personalities once resided at nearby Hotel 17.
The glamorous creation known as Amanda Lepore, a nightlife fixture, still claims one of the rooms, but the rest of the hotel’s down-and-out charm is now only available to tourists for short-term stays.
The stretch of Park Avenue that runs from 14th to 23rd streets has an incredible number of options — but it’s all the same food you could find elsewhere. We suggest dropping in on Irving Place, or exploring the avenues farther east.
Pete’s Tavern, 129 E. 18th St.,212-473-7676
This bar has been used as a set location for a number of films and TV shows, and hundreds of celebrity snapshots hang from the walls. O. Henry wrote “Gift of the Magi” in one of the black-lacquered booths. And the “Oldest Continuously Operating Bar & Restaurant in New York City” serves a surprisingly fresh weekend brunch. At $9.95, cocktail included, it’s also the cheapest deal around.
71 Irving Place Coffee & Tea Bar, 71 Irving Pl., 212-995-5252
This little outpost, founded 15 years ago, roasts its own coffee at an upstate farm. The cafe may be a tight squeeze among the students, scribblers and chic young moms — but that rich, soothing Cuban cortadito (espresso with steamed milk, served in a shot glass) is worth the trouble.
Ponty Bistro, 218 Third Ave., 212-777-1616
“It’s French. It’s African. It’s just terrific. And it’s become everyone’s favorite spot,” said Arlene Harrison, the block association president. She recommends the chicken tajine. But be sure to try the Niokolokoba — the signature dish, which is a grilled sirloin steak marinated with spices and a black peppercorn sauce.
Housing Works Thrift Shop, 157 E. 23rd St., 212-529-5955
We’re a nonprofit benefiting the homeless and people affected by HIV or AIDS,” said Lark Redding, sales associate. Proceeds from the store fund job-training programs, medical facilities and housing. A recent visit to the shop turned up a pristine white enamel worktable ($110) and a blond armoire hutch ($120).
Lomography, 106 E. 23rd St., 212-260-0240
Put away your iPhone and pick up one of the retro beauties at this camera and film shop. The store, which opened two months ago, offers weekend workshops and guided photo field trips of the area. Class prices range from free to $10, which includes camera loan and a roll of film.
Bruno the King of Ravioli, 235 E. 22nd St., 212-685-7666; 282 First Ave. (btwn. 16th and 17th sts.), 212-254-2156
Started in 1905 by Italian immigrant Bruno Cavalli, this fresh pasta outlet has three stores in the city, with two in the neighborhood. The flagship location on First Avenue, bordering Stuyvesant Town, has a full-service deli, grab-and-go items, and serves up meals throughout the day in the 40-seat dining area. But you can still buy a box of 40-count ravioli with fillings that range from the old-world standard ricotta cheese to the health-conscious tofu and spinach. Prices range from $5.99 to $10.99.
There’s a steady, nocturnal migration of khaki-clad border crossers from Murray Hill, but mostly celebs have taken over the district’s nightlife. Maybe five years ago, a regular girl could lounge at the Gramercy Park Hotel rooftop and get her foot stepped on by Moby, but one former resident said the hotel’s redo by Ian Schrager in 2005 ushered in an era of A-list elitism.
The Rose Bar, Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Ave.
You thought getting into the park was difficult? This spot — where Madonna, among others, hangs out — has so little interest in ordinary folks (that’s you and me) that you must request a reservation via e-mail if you want a drink after 9 p.m. They’ll get back to you if they can accommodate you (email@example.com).
Molly’s Shebeen, 287 Third Ave., 212-889-3361
A bar first put down stakes here in 1895. It survived Prohibition by posing as a grocery, and in 1964 was made over in its current style and named Molly Malone’s. Twenty years ago, it was renamed Molly’s Shebeen. “A shebeen is an illegal drinking space, an after-hours, a speakeasy,” said a manager on duty. The bar continues to be a favorite among Irish-American locals.
National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, 212-477-2389
The gorgeous sandstone façade of this mansion is worth a look. Built in the 1840s, and redone in the 1860s, it wasn’t until 1906 that the place became home to the National Arts Club, a private club with a mission to “foster and promote public interest in the arts.” Formed in 1898 by a literary and art critic at The New York Times, early members included Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. According to the club’s website, Martin Scorsese, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman are members.
The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South, 212-475-6116
This equally historic — and just as exclusive — club was established in 1888 by Edwin Booth, the acclaimed Shakespearean actor of his day and brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. A statue of Edwin acts as the centerpiece of Gramercy Park. Past “Players” have included Mark Twain and Carol Burnett. At the club earlier last month, Kevin Spacey was presented the Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace, 28 E. 20th St., 212-260-1616
Roosevelt is the only U.S. president born in New York City, and his rebuilt childhood home — a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service — is open to the public for free tours. Hours: Tue-Sat, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Daryl Roth Theater, 101 E. 15th St., 212-375-1110
This former savings bank, a landmark building from the 1840s, is home to a range of theatrical offerings. “Fuerza Bruta,” the loud, water- and confetti-filled extravaganza of sexy athleticism, is the latest production from the creators of “De La Guarda,” which ran at the theater for seven years. For the younger set, there’s the musical “Dear Edwina,” about a pre-adolescent Dear Abby who doles out advice in song, which plays at the annex DR2 until Feb 25.
Arlene Harrison, a park trustee and self-described unofficial mayor of Gramercy Park, unlocks the mystery about those storied keys.
For instance, the price for one isn’t the crazy sum you may have heard — unless, of course, you lose it.
How many keys are in circulation? There are a couple hundred out. They’re only given to lot-owner buildings. Those are the buildings on the original plots of land that [Samuel] Ruggles set up in 1831. And there are 39 lot-owner buildings ... [Buildings, depending on their size, comprise between one and four lots each.] They’re all residential except one commercial building, which is the Gramercy Park Hotel. There are two keys per lot.
How much for a key? If you live in a lot-owner building, you’re allowed to purchase one key for your unit and it’s $350. If you lose your key, it’s $1,000 for another one. But people tend not to lose it. And then it’s $2,000. And then it’s $4,000.
What draws people here? It’s a wonderful family neighborhood. We do loads of community service. It’s a very close-knit community.
How long have you been here? Thirty-nine years. I live in the oldest co-op in New York. It was built in 1883.