Central Park in spring may be the most glorious public space on Earth. Flowering dogwoods and lilacs scent the air as children, sprung from being cooped up all winter, pack the playgrounds. Bicyclists and runners swirl around the six-mile grand loop, battling through the steep hills of Harlem to take in the skyline views farther south. High-end food carts sell waffles and organic fare. It’s hard to believe that 30 years ago, tourists would stand on 59th Street staring north, afraid to venture into the park. New York City’s green spaces are “certainly at a modern high point,” says Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation (who started his career in 1979 as a park ranger and thus “worked in the parks system at its low point,” too).
But perhaps the most amazing thing about Central Park is how little tax money goes into maintaining it. Though it is still ultimately the city’s responsibility, the park has been managed since the 1980s by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, and it relies on private donations for most of its budget. The marriage between the city and the Conservancy has been a fruitful one. Can this model, known as a public-private partnership, restore and invigorate all of New York’s green spaces, including neighborhood parks in less affluent areas? It’s an important question, not only as the city faces tough fiscal times but as urban planners increasingly view parks as tools of economic development and public health.
New York has always been innovative with its green spaces. Looking north from a high floor in midtown, a visitor might think that city planners carved Central Park out of the skyscrapers. But the park was there first, opening in the 1850s. As architect and urbanist Witold Rybczynski once put it, Central Park was “out of scale with the needs of the time,” but Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed it and other city parks as well, was “looking ahead and seeing that the city’s going to grow around them and they’re really going to be necessary.” The same went for playgrounds. Seeing that children needed safe spaces for exercise and imagination in an era when child labor was still widespread, New York City opened the country’s first municipally built playground in Seward Park in 1903. The city now maintains more than 1,000 playgrounds.
These parks and playgrounds were once generously staffed. Steven Cohen, now executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s and remembers that “every park of any size had a building with a ‘parkie’ in it to give out equipment” and function as “the eyes and ears of the place.” That changed during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, as the city went broke and cut its payroll. What happened next was a textbook case of the Broken Windows theory of crime: fewer “eyes and ears” and reduced park maintenance sent vandals, other criminals, and the homeless the message that no one would care if they populated the parks. At the same time, of course, New York was suffering a massive crime epidemic.
People who lived in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s still remember how forbidding the parks were in those dark days. Douglas Blonsky, now head of the Central Park Conservancy and thus Central Park’s administrator, recalls that when he started working there in 1985, most of the benches were broken and most surfaces sported layers of graffiti. “The Great Lawn was a dust bowl,” he says, at least when the weather was dry; when it rained, seas of mud meant that “you could barely walk through the park for days.” Benepe recalls landmarks like Belvedere Castle as “burned-out shells.”
Of course, Central Park wasn’t the total nightmare of popular imagination, with muggers around every corner. On sunny days, sunbathers used the meadows. David Beld, a competitive runner who moved to New York City in 1981 and now leads tours of Central Park, would jog around the loops. But he knew people whose bicycles had been stolen—and not in the usual way; rather, a thief would “knock a person off his bike and then steal the bike.” And this in a park that stretched through some of the country’s richest zip codes. Other parks, like those in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, fared even worse, becoming so crime-ridden and overgrown that sensible parents figured that their children were better off inside watching TV.
But where “government had given up,” Benepe says, citizens stepped in. In 1980, landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and others founded the Central Park Conservancy, whose original purpose was to raise money, stop the park’s decline, and restore several of its major landmarks. The city eventually gave the Conservancy the lion’s share of day-to-day control of the park. Because its workers weren’t organized into public-sector unions, the Conservancy had a great deal of freedom to institute private management practices—above all, emphasizing accountability. The park is now divided into 49 sections, with a master gardener responsible for the condition of each. About 85 percent of the Conservancy’s annual budget comes from private donations, mostly from people who live within a ten-minute walk of the park. “Obviously, it’s an incredible backyard, and look what it does to your real-estate values,” says Blonsky.
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