Greenbacks for Green Space
This week we celebrate the largest gift ever made to a New York City park– probably to any park in the world. On an overcast early-fall morning at Bethesda Terrace, the architectural centerpiece of the park, Mayor Bloomberg announced a $100 million donation to the Central Park Conservancy.
John A. Paulson, who grew up in Queens and made his fortune by predicting the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, deserves credit for his extraordinary generosity which will benefit New Yorkers forever. The gift is unprecedented in its size and scope. It will not primarily be spent on buildings, but on landscape, horticulture, maintenance and playground restoration and upgrades.
Central Park, a spectacular green oasis in a concrete jungle, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Such a large area, 843 acres, could only be assembled when the price of land was dirt cheap. In the 1850’s the area where the park is located was miles north of the built up section of Manhattan. By the 1900’s the park had become enveloped by apartment houses.
It took more than a century of municipal growth for Central Park to be surrounded by luxurious buildings, much of whose value is now derived from their proximity to the park.
Central Park has a unique base from which to appeal for private support, but that did not happen for many years. It required the catalyst of city action mixed with private vision to secure adoption of the restoration plan, originally proposed by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers in 1980.
At the time that she and other park reformers had come upon the scene, the park was in a shambles. Its large, formerly grassy areas had become dust bowls; rock outcrops, stone walls, and granite monument bases were blemished with graffiti. The park was considered unsafe at night, because of muggings and other violent crimes.
Central Park jokes became a staple of national late night television, based on the theme that entering the park at night was inviting serious trouble.
But Ms. Rogers, who led a small group called the Central Park Task Force was tenacious in her belief that, even in the depth’s of New York City’s fiscal crisis, the citizens of New York would rally to the cause of saving their park. Joined by Richard Gilder and other equally committed New Yorkers, she persisted in this mission and, following the election of Edward I. Koch as mayor, was appointed to the newly created position of Central Park Administrator. With this backing, she was able to launch the country’s first public-private partnership in support of a park. The Conservancy developed a management and restoration plan that continues to guide the renewal and maintenance of Central Park’s magnificent landscape to this day.
In 1998, during the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Commissioner Henry J. Stern, at the urging of then conservancy chairman Ira Millstein, the conservancy signed a management agreement with the city of New York to maintain the park. Public sovereignty over the park was continued and the necessary work of maintenance and operations was assigned to the conservancy.
At the press event this week, in front of The Angel of the Waters Fountain, with hundreds of park workers present, the conservancy’s current president and Central Park administrator, Douglas Blonsky, detailed the allocation of the newly acquired funds. The Paulson donation will be given evenly to the conservancy’s endowment fund and the capital projects which will enable major restorations to The North Woods, which are basically in the same condition they were a century ago, and Merchants’ Gate at the Southwest corner of the park – its most visited entrance.
Hopefully, this gift will stimulate other donors to join in the effort so that more parks can be built up and maintained at the same high standard. The city simply cannot afford to make every park into the Gardens of Versailles
It would be wonderful if every park in the city could be maintained at the level of Central Park. Multiple demands on the city budget have made substantial increases in the parks expense budget wholly unlikely. The Paulson gift should not be seen as a reason to relax the effort to increase private support. It shows us that an attractive, well maintained park will appeal to people seeking beauty in nature and the world around us.
We thank Mr. Paulson and his family. The gift also illustrates one great advantage of capitalism: an individual starting from scratch can, by his own industry and good fortune, become successful beyond his dreams and join the philanthropists of the past and the present –Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Rockefeller, Ford, Gates, Buffett and Bloomberg.
Major and minor donors have initiated and supported foundations which may be more responsive and flexible when dealing with changing community needs. Paulson’s gift will preserve Central Park for the future and will hopefully stimulate other donors to support green spaces throughout the city.