Another Editorial About Our Parks

Reducing Some City Parks to the Status of Beggars


Steve Hindy, the Brooklyn Brewery baron and a fellow whose love of this city is manifest, serves as board member of the Prospect Park Alliance. He noticed the city was steadily edging away from its financial commitment.

“About 10 years ago, the city contributed about 60 percent of the park budget and we raised the rest,” Mr. Hindy recalled. “I suggested to our board that we draw a line and say ‘no more cuts.’ ”

Fast forward a decade. The city contributes perhaps 40 percent of the budget for this grandly diverse park. The Alliance scrapes up the rest from corporations and foundations and by insistently shaking a tin cup before city and state legislators.

“Someone should really blow the whistle for what’s happened to parks,” Mr. Hindy notes. “People should let their elected officials know that they have cut the throats of the parks for years.”

That brings me to my recent tour of Prospect Park’s Nethermead, in the company of my dog Monk. We found a sun-baked mud scar running along the path from the lake to the Nethermead. Another dirt track cut a scabrous scar across the meadow’s western flank.

This is the residue of the Great GoogaMooga, the food and music festival that recently took over the heart of this Olmsted gem. Last year it left much of the meadow unusable for the summer. Yet to leave my grumpy accounting at the doorstep of the Alliance president, Emily Lloyd, who signed off on the festival, would be unfair, or at least incomplete.

Two decades ago I wheeled my son’s stroller into the Nethermead and discovered that vandals had smashed every lamp. Tree roots suffered from erosion; graffiti was everywhere. The Prospect Park Alliance oversaw the revival of this park, on a shoestring.

So it turns to fund-raisers like GoogaMooga, which cause many to howl.

New York’s parks offer a feudal landscape of the privileged and underprivileged. There is the squire’s fancy that is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Von Furstenberg/Barry Dillered ornament that is the High Line, and of course the grand duchy that is the Central Park Conservancy.

These largely private operations are not for plebes. The Central Park Conservancy manages $220 million in assets, and has four officials who make more money than the cityparks commissioner, Veronica M. White. At a High Line fund-raiser, a host held aloft a million-dollar check and asked for a match. Another $1 million check was written on the spot.

At the other end of this spectrum, the cracked path around the Shore Park-Verrazano Narrows offers an exercise in horizontal mountain biking. At Flushing Meadows-Corona Park children play in dry wading pools and lake paths are unnavigable without machetes.

Prospect Park occupies a middle ground. It has overseen a stunningly beautiful reconstruction of its lake side. It also rents out its Audubon Center on weekends to the wedding-bar mitzvah-birthday crowd.

Our lame duck mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, has started to turn off his charitable money shower. His foundation informed the Prospect Park Alliance that it intended to end its quarter-million dollar annual contribution. (Ms. Lloyd declined to discuss this.)

“Prospect Park is not even close to Central Park,” Mr. Hindy notes. “It’s golden apples and regular oranges.”

Those who defend privatization are candid. Ask about inequity and they talk of commodities; the emerald brilliance of Central Park draws tourists. The High Line is a brooch in the luxury transformation of Chelsea.

As for Flushing Meadows? When told that partisans hoped to transform a homely asphalt-ringed fountain into a grass-edged lake, John Alschuler Jr., co-chairman of theFriends of the High Line, offered an exasperated sigh. In his day job, he lobbies to place a U.F.O.-size professional soccer stadium in the midst of that Queens park.

Cities, he said, no longer pay for parks properly. Such exuberant hopes will not be realized in my life, he said, or that of my child. Find a corporate sponsor, he suggested.

So condescension passes as realism.

Holly Leicht of New Yorkers for Parks is a vigorous parks advocate, and would demand transparency and accountability from conservancies. But she would not upset the conservancy lords until the Parks Department is properly financed and revamped.

This feels backward. Former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton transformed a hidebound Police Department in months; why demand less of the Parks Department?

And why not toss down a challenge: John Paulson made a tremendous bundle betting that the housing market would tank disastrously and donated $100 million to Central Park, which lies in his backyard. Perhaps 50 percent of his money should go to the other parks. It’s that old notion of the public weal.

Ms. Lloyd, the president of the Prospect Park Alliance, tiptoes so carefully. “In this country, we don’t really fund public infrastructure and public spaces as we do in other countries,” she said. “It’s always a huge stretch.”

No doubt this is so. The question is whether in this densest of American cities, privatized parks serve the broadest public good.


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