Central Park Sellout
October 14, 1997
It was always a paradox — a populist Arcadia built at a time when western expansion had begun the century-long desecration of the American frontier, a “wilderness” in the middle of an increasingly mechanized city, a utopian sanctuary no less artificial in its conception than the later rodent kingdoms of Disney would be. Anticipating Mickey and Goofy, Central Park was built with fake grass and man-made hills and artificial waterfalls. At one time, it even had a salaried shepherd tending to an ornamental flock.
It was a “natural” place intended to evoke what Freud would later refer to as the “old condition of things” — specifically the agrarian activities that gave shape to human life before “traffic and industry” deformed the planet. Central Park provided rolling meadows, scenic vistas, rustic overlooks, bridges with grottoes to shelter fictitious trolls. It gives the appearance of being a naturally occurring fragment of some imaginary countryside.
To create this distinctly New World fantasia it was necessary for Old World laborers to hump in 10 million cartloads of soil. Designed to be many things, Central Park was foremost a kind of Rousseauesque frame for man’s encounters with his “true” self. Crossing its threshold, visitors entered into the spirit of what the landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted rhapsodically called a “wildness so hard to capture once put to flight.”
But the park may soon become as permanently tame as a golf course if the mayor approves an eight-year exclusive management contract with the Central Park Conservancy. Giuliani’s signature would permit custody of the city’s most important public space quietly to pass into the hands of a private philanthropic elite. And then, with cottage garden plantings, proliferating signage, sweeps of Lawnmaster greens — and helped along by a special new promotional team — Central Park, the place, could soon become Central Park, the theme.
A SATURDAY TIMES news report blandly summarized the future: “Formalizing a relationship that has been growing steadily for 17 years, the Giuliani administration has decided to officially turn over responsibility for maintaining Central Park, the pastoral soul of the city, to a private group.”
Under the terms of the new agreement, the Central Park Conservancy will receive as much as $4 million a year from the city, half from the general fund and half in concessions revenues. This is in addition to Central Park’s share of the city’s overall parks budget, currently $2.9 million a year. (Of the park’s current $15.9 million budget, the Conservancy privately raises and funds about two-thirds.)
In the first year of the proposal, the city will pay the Conservancy $1 million, provided it raises and spends $5 million; the payments escalate to as much as $2 million a year over the course of the contract’s term. The deal also calls for the conservancy to keep 50 per cent of any concession revenues above the current level, up to a maximum of $2 million a year.
Claiming that the city will retain control over all important decisions, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern insists, “This represents an ideal public-private partnership. They’re going to whitewash our fences and they’re going to pay to do it. There’s no surrender here.”
Yet the plan Stern negotiated with Conservancy head Karen Putnam this past summer — a time when most local community boards were on hiatus — bypassed city charter-mandated processes for establishing public policy and circumvented standard competitive contracting rules to place the day-to-day maintenance of the city’s most heavily utilized public park under private control. The commissioner argued successfully with City Hall that the conservancy’s record meritcd giving it a sole-source, no-bid contract.
Since a partial management contract between the Conservancy and the city was signed in 1993, there has not been a single public audit or review. Those agency operations not covered in its annual report are not publicly reported. If the mayor approves the long-term contract, it becomes impossible to monitor Conservancy performance by means of state freedom of information statutes or open-meetings laws. And, while IRS statutes require not-for-profits to make tax returns publicly available, a visitor’s initial request placed at the Conservancy’s Arsenal office was recently turned away — until the visitor identified himself as a reporter. Furthermore, although the Conservancy chief — who also serves as the Central Park administrator — reports to the parks commissioner, she is privately paid, a fact that places her office another step away from accountability.
Where is the public in all this? After Conservancy officials declined an appearance to answer contract questions at a City Council hearing, Council-member Ronnie Eldridge complained that “There used to be public scrutiny when we had a Board of &timatc. It’s very hard now for there to be any public oversight.”
For her part, Putnam counters that “the Conservancy has the most exhaustive review system of its own design. We do not move forward without approval front the Landmarks and the Municipal Art commissions.” Conservancy chairman Ira M. Millstein adds, “Never once have we tried to ‘take over the park.’ All we want to do is to keep it nice. We pay for the right to keep that park beautiful.”
It’s Millstein’s sweeping assumption of noblesse oblige that should sound an alarm, since the Central Park Conservancy board currently includes among its members the multimillionaires Richard Gilder, Michael Bloomberg, and Henry Kravis — group not unaccustomed to having its collective way. “The Conservancy is increasingly alone in ensuring that the premier property in the city’s park system does not again become a humiliating ruin,” Gilder wrote in last winter’s City Journal, the publication of the Manhattan Institute. Gilder went on to blame the park’s disastrous past not on draconian budget cuts but on shiftless, work-to-book unions. That particular problem will be tidily dispensed with under the new contract, which, among other conclusions, gives the private nonprofit the right to fire city employees.
“As a principle, it’s a terrible mistake,” one former Parks Department official says of the contract, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Thee director of the Conservancy isn’t selected by the mayor. It’s too public a place to have a private entity in charge.”
In a 1995 interview, the then Central Park administrator and Conservancy chief Elizabeth Barlow Rogers remarked that “we must avoid the privatization of public space.” Even Gilder himself — $17 million benefactor of the Great Lawn restoration — has paid lip service to this high-minded ideal. “New York’s parks arc invaluable public amenities and must remain under close public supervision.”
However, according to Carolyn Kent, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 9, which opposed the long-term contract, “We’re very deep into parks issues at this board, and we weren’t consulted. We were shocked. This is not a parochial issue where only the people who live in adjacent aparnncnt houses set the debate. Are only the wealthiest supposed to call the shots?”
WHERE RUMINANTS ONCE cropped the Sheep Meadow, the 843-acre park is now dominated by a bureaucratic sacred cow. And it must be said that the Conservancy — brought in to save the ailing park in 1980 by Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, after Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested turning the place over to the National Parks Service — can legitimately claim responsibility for good works. The restoration of the Harlem Meer, the Dairy, the Bethesda Fountain, and the general reversal of decades-long Parks Department misfeasance were unforeseeable feats at a time when both the elms along Poet’s Walk and the city itself were afflicted with creeping rot.
Since then the economy has rebounded, and Central Park can once again merit the appellation of “crown jewel of the nation’s urban parks.” With the conservancy’s successes came increasing pressure from the board to expand its powers beyond fundraising and general maintenance to full-scale management. “What’s happened,” says Moisha Blechman, of the New York City Sierra Club, “is that, ultimately, the people who gave the money said, ‘We want to control how the money is spent.’ It makes no sense in a wealthy city to have the takeover of a public entity by a private organization.”
Many things that now occur in the park make little sense, and few of them are held up for public scrutiny. The alienating effect of shutting off areas of the park for promotional events, for example, has some significant precedent (Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross, etc). But when a Garth Brooks fan complained to The New York Times of the 10 a.m. opening and 6 p.m. closing of the park on concert day, her letter cast a chill. “In the future,” wrote Darlene Geller, “perhaps passes can be given out at different times and places beforehand.”
Or perhaps in the future, Team Cheerios will be the order of a Central Park day. On a steamy afternoon in mid August, a giant yellow inflatable cereal box loomed above Bethesda Terrace, a sort of bloated corporate affront to the fountain’s famous Angel of the Waters. Idling on the nearby transverse, several Rollerblade vans advertised the brand’s newly purchased ($1.6 million to the Parks Department) slogan as “THE OFFICIAL SKATE OF NEW YORK CITY PARKS.” A New York Rangers slap-shot booth parked beneath some elms bore a huge Coca-Cola logo. The displays are here to celebrate a national youth-sports conclave. Oddly enough, it’s the one fact not explained with any signs. A visitor who didn’t know better could easily imagine having wandered into a soccer-league fundraiser at the mall.
On another summer morning a beach volleyball tournament is underway near the Naumburg Bandshell. There are bleachers and announcers and cancerously sunbaked people spiking balls into the imported sand. The event is underwritten by the hair-care magnate Paul Mitchell, whose workers have erected canvas tents in which they offer free trims and comb-outs. “One of Mayor Giuliani’s top priorities is to develop and nurture public-private partnerships that result in sustained improvements in the condition of our parks,” is how Parks Commissioner Stem reasons away this usurpation of public space.
Events like these are officially sanctioned by the Parks Department, and not the privately funded Central Park Conservancy, but the demarcation between the two has increasingly become blurred. The $750,000 fee HBO paid for Garth Brooks’s concert, for instance was split by the parks department and a Conservancy trust. So was the $55,000 BMW paid to publicize a new sports-car test-drive through the park, the $100,000 Sony and Toys “R” Us paid to hold game exhibitions along the park’s Fifth Avenue entrances, and the $50,000 Breakstone paid to stage an annual Easter egg roll on park lawns.
Editorializing on the need for creation of a “central park,” the influential 19th-century land-scape achitect Andrew Jackson Browning wrote that “deluded New York has, until lately, contented itself with … mere grassplats of verdure … in the mistaken idea that they are parks.” Deluded New York still contents itself with mere grassplats, or anyway settles for being herded from one precious grassplat to the next, as the city’s greatest public space is segmented with fencing and sold off to, say, Anheuser Busch and Evian, two firms that jointly paid $100,000 to hold a beach volleyball tournament in a place without a beach.
“The commercialization of the park,” becomes that much easier when planning and operations are conducted out of public view, says the Sierra Club’s Blechman. “An adventure playground goes through without community input. A power station just appears at 86th Street and Central Park West. You begin to get increased signage all over the park, done without community input. Central Park was not designed to have maps and directions everywhere. The Conservancy wants to obscure the natural wonder with huge signs telling you where you are.”
Where exactly are you? Are you feeling warm and fuzzy seated on the Christine Hearst and Stephen Schwarzman memorial bench at 76th Street? Are you stopping on your official skates of NYC parks for a sip of water from the Sidney and Arthur Diamond fountain? Are you memorizing the sentimental hokum of an anonymous donor’s plaque — affixed to a bench near Inventors Gate — informing parkgoers that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin”?
What if you’ve had enough of “kinship” with 8 million fellow individuals — not to mention their products, their philosophies, the oppressive din of their names? “Donor naming has become commonplace in hospitals and synagogues, why not the park?” says commissioner Stern. “Commercialize forever if you want to,” responds attorney Robert Makla, founder of the historicist Greensward Foundation. “Name everything. Give money and ask for a plaque. The point of Central Park is to cross the street and leave the commercialization behind. Stop identifying with Time Warner and Garth Brooks and Disney. Evoke nature, not an individual. Take a look. Do Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux have their names anywhere?
They do not. As Carolyn Kent of Community Board 5 notes, “The problem is there’s no landscape historical staff at the Conservancy to keep the park from becoming a graveyard of memorial plaques.”
Central Park, as biographer Lee Hall writes in Olmsted’s America, was not “created in a social vacuum, or under ideal protection by governing authorities.” It was created on “an undercurrent of political pork barreling, vote trading, and power brokerage.” Lacking the grotesque bravado of the Tweed clubhouse, the current power brokers assert a subtle aesthetic hegemony over a piece of Manhattan larger than Monaco.
For “safety,” they seal the park perimeter during ethnic parade days. They install “temporary” snow fencing that becomes a de facto fixture of the landscape. They festoon fences with self-celebrating signs and install English-style cottage gardens where the park’s designers mandated native plantings. Increasingly, perhaps in imitation of the 19th-century parks “sparrow cops,” they exhort parkgoers to indulge only in proper forms of public behavior. Sports or unleashed dogs are sternly discouraged, while “relaxing, sunbathing, daydreaming?” are deemed okay.
“The Conservancy is not, must never be allowed to be, and should not be seen as, an elitist organization of East Side snobs acting like Lord and Lady Bountiful,” warned William Beinecke, the founding chairman of the conservancy. Yet, as one Upper East Side activist remarks, “the Conservancy’s history of communicating with groups and individuals is very poor. There are many unanswered questions about how park money will be allocated, how they’re going to spend concession revenues, who decides which of these big public events are held in the park. No one has seen this contract and yet the people from the Conservancy refuse to discuss it. Once the contract is signed, they say, they’ll talk.”
BEFORE THERE WAS a Central Park Conservancy, there were the volunteer Friends of Central Park, and before them there was an activist-historian named M. M. Graff. Although you’ll find no citation on Graff in the Encyclopedia of New York City, she remains a figure of some reverence among people who love the city.
It was Graff who conducted crucial surveys of Central and Prospect parks, compiled definitive guides to the bridges, trees, and trails, and also wrote pithy biographies of the park’s creators, pronouncing them “visionaries endowed with highest order of and dedication” and then promptly cutting artistry them down to size. Calvert Vaux, claims Graff, saw the park as an opportunity to advance the art of landscape architecture. Frederic Law Olmsted was moved by democratic ideals.
For decades Graff fought to preserve the balance of these differing visions as realized in a park that is part aesthetic conception, part experimental proving ground.
“The Conservancy is bad and Parks is worse,” Graff says now. “The trees are in terrible danger from automobile emissions, but nobody says a word. I hear they’re going to put up signs for traffic, how to get here and there. Obviously, once that happens, that’s a place you can put advertising, too. They consistently cheapen and vulgarize the park experience, but Landmarks and the Municipal Art Society do nothing to stop them. Only Robert Makla speaks up and everyone hates his guts. I’d like to get out and help, but I’m brushing 89. Frankly, I don’t feel Central Park has much future anymore.” ♦
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 2020