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September 29th, 2003

A Discriminating Walk in the Park?

by Sara Goff

When Aldon James, President of the National Arts Club, is asked, What’s going on in Gramercy Park? he’s likely to answer, “Ah?ɂ a burgeoning of art and culture through education and dramatic expression. Oh, and ample food for thought and musical inspiration abound!” But, alas, he knows this is not all people have been hearing-for years now-in Gramercy Park. And the chilling cries of racial discrimination will linger. Just go inside (if you can) and listen. You’ll hear them. Hard to imagine in time-honored Gramercy Park, where two acres of rich land have been preserved for the meticulous nurturing of mother nature, each season, sacred.

You are escorted at the hand of a property owner whose Nineteenth Century home borders the park, granting entrance. A key. You’re instructed to leave your dog outside and warned against touching the leaves or walking on the grass. Try not to breathe on the flowers. At the tender age of thirteen, you and your classmates are just grateful for the epochal opportunity-and not because Gramercy Park is the only private park in Manhattan, but because you’ve attended the school around the corner for nine years now and that’s a long time to gaze through the iron gate of a lovely park. You enter wide-eyed to a chorus of birds?ɂ and are curtly told you’re not welcome here.

Suddenly, the soft rustling of leaves falls silent to sharp gasps and hot whispers. Ms. Sharon Benenson, the woman who spoke to you in such a hurtful tone, broadcasts her powerful ties to the park-Chairwoman of the Gramercy Park Trust. Her threats to call the police on you are frightening, but her piercing words, “We don’t want your kind here,” echo in your head?ɂ for the rest of your life.

Did this really happened to a group of 55 minority students, four teachers and a chaperone? Their nearby school is Washington Irving High School. Their host was Mr. Aldon James of the National Arts Club. Their testaments read racial discrimination. Still, some people will argue it didn’t happen. Ms. Benenson is not without her own supporters who believe, as one Gramercy Park resident emphatically maintains, “She’s a very intelligent and classy woman who would never make such a remark. Never!”

But it’s too late. Vociferous protests against racial discrimination reverberate throughout the neighborhood. “They say discriminate! We say educate!” activists cry. After an hour or so, the chanting sounds like static on high volume. Unnerving. But that’s what Reverend Al Sharpton and the NY Chapter of the National Action Network wants. Roaring right along side them are the Center for Constitutional Rights, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care and members of the Association of Black Social Workers. Even the world champion boxer Iran “The Blade” Barkley joins forces. They mean war.

Legal action ensues. William Samuels, a neighborhood resident and businessman, ignites the lawsuit in Federal Court, hiring the leading New York law firm, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. In January of 2001, the Gramercy Park Board of Trustees is charged with civil rights violations on two separate occasions. As the principal financial supporter, Mr. Samuels spends nearly a million dollars of his own money before the suit finally settles.

But mudslinging prevails. Local newspapers such as The Villager and, particularly, Town & Village, get involved opposing the lawsuit in full page ads. As if power and money were at stake, plaintiff, Mr. James, is defamed in bright color, accused of tax evasion and wrongful intent. For two years, he and his family are led through incriminating interrogations and investigations reminiscent of seventeenth century witch-hunts.

The Department of Finance, along with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and the State Department of Taxation and Finance, find nothing on Mr. James; however, his twin brother, John James, is forced to plead guilty to sales tax evasion and failure to file unincorporated business tax returns for his jewelry business. According to a July 10, 2003 press release from the Department of Finance, John James, besides paying fines and back taxes, plea bargains for a lesser sentence of 90 days of institutionalized psychiatric treatment. Sounds disturbingly Soviet to those who know John. A simple walk in the park becomes as twisted as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.”

Of the three trustees on the board, Arthur N. Abbey supports Ms. Benenson’s behavior. In the suit he claims that race had nothing to do with her actions to protect the park from outsiders. The third trustee, Steven Leitner, opposes her actions, believing there’s a better way to manage the park “apart from publicly singling out groups of innocent students and ordering them to leave.”

A neighborhood resident who normally supports Ms. Benenson’s decisions on the board said “Causing people humiliation, especially a group of teenagers, is a big mistake. I’m surprised she didn’t foresee problems. After all, they were invited into the park. Those kids deserve an apology.” According to Mr. James, no apology was ever made to the students or teachers.

Reverend Sharpton is quoted at one of the park rallies saying “To target the National Arts Club for doing what all New Yorkers should be doing-participating in the education of young people-is something we cannot sit back in silence and allow to happen.” Even after the demonstrators go home, his voice seems to hang in the air, “Our children must not be made to think that they are so despicable in these people’s sight?ɂ”

Back noise to the impassioned cries outside the wrought-iron gate is internal strife. Or call it squabbling going on behind the ornate facades of the park’s surrounding buildings. Then he said, she said. Name-calling. It’s appalling to Mr. James that he is accused of victimizing minority students – especially since he’s on Washington Irving High School’s Business Advisory Council and actively promotes their arts and theater programs. Still, Ms. Benenson claims that he is enough of a “harebrained nut” to do such a thing for control of the board. Yet, Mr. James, with his sticks and stones may break my bones?ɂ grin, goes on spreading culture in the community with his Even-Steven ideals. Can “harebrained nut” translate to liberal? Clearly, that’s how the plaintiffs hear it.

And they heard it again on June 9th, just two months after the first incident. Ms. Benenson confronted a member of the National Arts Club, author Beki Kraynak, as she was escorting a group of 15 minority fifth-grade students from Public School/Intermediate School 217 through the park. The children, visiting from Roosevelt Island, were there to participate in a writing festival at the National Arts Club. Ms. Kraynak said that she and the children were told the park “is not for outside people” and were forced to leave.

So who is the park for? Naturally, key holders will want to share their piece of good earth. As the rule now stands, groups of more than six guests must be approved by the Board of Trustees, and any events or activities permitted by the Trustees “will be subject to rules adopted by the Trustees, which may be changed from time to time at the discretion of the Trustees.”

The National Arts Club’s mission has always been to “broaden the public’s understanding of our cultural community,” says Mr. James, who was recently reelected President of the club with a 95% vote. Even the club’s founders, a group of artists led by Charles de Kay, the once long-time literary and art critic for the New York Times, faced criticism back in 1893 when they admitted women on full and equal basis. Mr. James assures, “The club will continue its tradition of inclusivity by welcoming minority artists and fighting for the rights of minority students.”

But when asked if he continues to introduce the park to neighborhood school children, Mr. James sadly states that there will be no more class trips. “There was once a list of ten or twelve park rules,” he explains, “but now the board of trustees distributes a multi-paged document drawn up by lawyers.” It brings to mind an occupied territory and makes you wonder?ɂ will these children grow up harboring resentments toward this seemingly harmless park?

The seed of racial discrimination has been planted in Gramercy Park, and New Yorkers should be afraid of losing a lot more than two acres of private land. After threats and accusations, after voices explode, screams and sirens, after protests of vengeance-God forbid, we hear a deadly silence.

-Sara Goff

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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