On a snowy Tuesday in late February, Skip Blumberg stood outside the five-foot-tall metal fence that surrounds City Hall Park, the green oasis nestled downtown between Broadway, Chambers, and Centre streets. Blumberg was peering through padlocked gates at empty chess tables on the other side. Not so long ago, this 27-year resident of lower Manhattan and the indefatigable leader of the Friends of City Hall Park would watch his neighbors play at those tables. Or kiss under the cherry trees. Or stroll along the pathway toward City Hall. Now the only clue that the northern part of this lush and historic park was ever enjoyed by the public is an almost illegible sign posted on the lawn. It reads: “Please enjoy this natural area.”
“That sign survived 9/11,” said Blumberg, who is 62 and bearded and exceedingly spry, motioning toward the knee-high placard sticking out of the grass.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which ushered in an era of tightened security, much of City Hall Park has remained closed to the public, its manicured gardens hidden behind heavily sealed gates. In its 220 years, the park has been a favorite stomping ground for New Yorkers—the site of everything from public executions to colonial protests to Yankees ticker-tape parades. But over the past five years, those eager to convene at City Hall Park couldn’t get too far past the padlocks and chains. That is about to change, thanks largely to Blumberg and his 2000-strong Friends organization.
The city has reached an agreement with the citizens group to open up park areas that were shuttered post-9/11, ostensibly for security. While a protective fence equipped with cameras will remain near City Hall, the northern part of the park—from behind the municipal building to Chambers Street—will be opened all day, every day, except when a nearby school has recess. Under a plan agreed to on February 13, the city will unlock the five gates that have kept the public off these lawns and pathways. Officials have also agreed to set up benches and other amenities in the Centre Street plaza. The agreement sets an opening date for “sometime in July.”
Folks downtown credit Mayor Michael Bloomberg for finally reversing what they consider an illegal policy, but they all-out praise Blumberg. When officials relayed the news to the neighborhood last month during a Community Board One meeting at Millennium High School, on Broad Street, the crowd erupted in applause. “Thanks for being a pain in the neck, Skip,” shouted one community board member. “Congratulations, Skip,” yelled another, “it’s been a real labor of love!”
Outside that meeting, Pip Wurmfeld, a Friends of City Hall Park member, lauded the man best known as the “maven” of City Hall Park. “Skip has been such a one-man band for so long,” she said. Her husband Sandy nodded, and added, “He was adamant at getting City Hall Park open.”
Blumberg, who lives in an apartment building across from the park, has fought to keep City Hall Park open twice now. In 1999, while renovating the once-haggard space, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani erected that inhospitable fence, much to folks’ dismay. Blumberg saw that as an affront—”We were dealt out,” is how he put it, since residents who had long tended to the park couldn’t use it anymore. It took the Friends months to convince Giuliani to take down the chains around lawns and post that barely legible sign.
Then came 9/11, and all gates closed. In January 2002, Bloomberg, who had promised as a candidate to re-open the park, freed up only the southern side. Months turned into years, and Blumberg wondered if security wasn’t a pretense to permanently seize public parkland. He built a network of 2000 downtown residents, employees, and businesses to push the mayor to reverse course. In December 2005, the activist ran into the mayor during a park event.
“Would you re-open City Hall Park?” he asked.
Bloomberg, as Blumberg recalls the exchange, replied: “I’ll think about it.”
Nothing happened for months, despite 100 e-mails to the mayor and the help of local politicians. Then a lower Manhattan attorney named Derek Adler informed Blumberg of a state law that forbids a municipality from taking a public park without permission from the New York State legislature. Adler wrote to Bloomberg last September and explained that his administration was, as the legal term goes, “alienating public parkland.” He threatened to sue.
“He must have known we were right,” Adler recalled.
Two months later, Blumberg and four Friends met with city officials. They wanted the administration to return City Hall Park to pre-9/11 conditions, including freeing up the plaza in front of City Hall, which looks like a fortified parking lot. Officials touted the need for security. Blumberg kept on pushing.
First, he suggested building a new City Hall outside the park—”Nobody took that seriously,” he said. The city proposed installing metal detectors at the gates—”That was anathema,” he countered. Eventually, Blumberg and Friends agreed to go along with the protective fence, giving up three of the park’s eight acres. In return, they gained the reopening of the northern lawns, pathways, and the new amenities, such as portable cafe tables and chairs. (Bill Castro, the Manhattan parks commissioner who shepherded the agreement, could not be reached for comment.)
As Blumberg walked along the fence on Chambers Street—pointing out the burial spots from when City Hall Park served as the city’s first potter’s field—he reflected on his five-year fight. “This is a story about responsibility,” he said, earnestly. He felt obliged to act after what he calls “Giuliani’s betrayal”—as an activist, he’d helped the former mayor secure roughly $2 million to renovate part of the park, only to see it closed after 9/11. (The total cost of renovating the whole park is estimated at least $12 million.)”
“This isn’t over yet,” Blumberg insisted. “Not until the gates are finally opened.” Not until he can see his neighbors back at those chess tables or on those lawns, next to that small sign.
“I cannot wait,” he said, grinning widely.