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By Bobby Calise

Greenacre Park is one of Manhattan’s hidden gems. (I know, I know, everyone thinks a place is a “hidden gem” because they didn’t know about it. It’s one of the most overused phrases in travel writing.) But the park is literally hidden. When it’s closed, Greenacre Park all but disappears into East 51st Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, unnoticeable between a synagogue and a luxury apartment building; a large, sliding metal gate seals the entrance during the off season, making it look more like a roomy jail cell than a quiet park.

I moved to Manhattan in wintertime. Caught up in the excitement of my first City apartment and the fact that my couch was about six inches too tall to fit through my doorway, I didn’t notice the park. It was only on a warm spring day in April or May that it opened for the season and I realized it had been there the whole time, hibernating. After that, anyone who visited me would say, “Oh what a great little park. I bet you go there all the time!”

In fact, after my girlfriend moved up to New York from Virginia and in with me last August, her mom was thrilled to learn about the little “vest-pocket park” across the street. Moms always seem to hang onto these quirky expressions—my mom, for example, refers to all elevated Subway trains as “the L,” even if they’re actually on the N or the W lines.

Greenacre Park is privately owned and maintained by the Greenacre Foundation, which also assists other New York City public park projects. The park’s star attraction is the waterfall. According to the complimentary pamphlet I picked up at the window of Greenacre’s tiny cafe, the waterfall pumps 2,500 gallons per minute, which is constantly filtered and recirculated. But what the stats don’t tell you is how loud it is—like really loud. If you’re sitting just a few feet away from it, you’d have a hard time eavesdropping on the couple’s conversation at the next table over. In New York City, you’re almost always within earshot of another conversation, but not here.

Reading up on Greenacre Park reminded me of Green Acres Mall, where my mom took us when we were kids (until it became too dangerous). We would make the short trip from Queens to just barely Nassau County for back to school clothes or at Christmastime. The line of cars to leave Green Acres was usually bumper-to-bumper from Sunrise Highway going all the way back to the mall parking lot. To pass the time, Mom—who often referred to setbacks like these as “adventures”—came up with a game for my younger brother and me to pass the time: guess how many times the traffic light will change before we get to it. Usually, it ended up being 13, or 15, or sometimes 20 greenyellowreds before we reached the highway. As Greenacre Park makes its visitors forget they’re in a city of eight million people, the Traffic Light Game made us forget we were stuck in a parking lot for an hour.

The pamphlet says Greenacre Park is 30 years old. Its modern look, though, suggests it’s had some work done. Despite the newness, it seems as though it was built three decades ago just so people could read the Sunday Times there—though the uncomfortable metal chairs and very low tables almost dare its guests to sit for more than an hour at a time. The red lines on the back of your legs and the ache in your lower back and mean it’s time to go.

The Turtle Bay neighborhood sees its share of tourists pass through, some of them discovering Greenacre on the way to someplace else. Some teenage couples hang out there, holding hands, girlfriends sitting on boyfriends’ laps, sharing music on a pair of ear buds—a rare romantic locale in the City that’s actually free. Wannabe writers and sketch artists sit in the center of the park, looking up at the waterfall for inspiration, scribbling furiously in notebooks, crossing out and erasing and starting over. Meanwhile, us locals study everyone else carefully to see who’s using our park today.

Overseeing the entire scene is Greenacre’s custodian, an older black gentleman who paces up and down the grounds like an SAT proctor. (Both my girlfriend and I have been reprimanded on separate occasions for putting our feet up on the stone ledges.) I haven’t decided if I hate the custodian for treating me like a misbehaved child or love him for the seriousness with which he takes his job; New York City may be a filthy place, but not his park, not on his watch. Occasionally, he’ll duck into a four foot high door built into one of the park’s side walls. I often wonder, What’s under there? An underground poker game for park custodians only? A holding cell for repeat offenders of the No Feet on the Ledge rule?

The pamphlet says the city parks commissioner, at the park dedication, said: “It is the rarest of pleasures for me to be able to express the thanks and appreciation of the people of the City of New York for the privilege of using this green acre. It is a privilege which places no burden on the city, which makes no demands, which asks of us only that we cherish it.”

Seems like a fair deal to me.

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