What donors do for (some) city parks

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Prospect Park. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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At one point, when Prospect Park’s buildings were closed, or falling apart, the carousel was frequently used by drug dealers instead of children. In 1980, when Tupper Thomas became the park’s first administrator, New Yorkers had been visiting fewer than 2 million times each year.

It was dangerous: That year, the New York Times later reported, the police recorded 228 robberies and 14 rapes connected to the park.

Because Prospect Park was close to low-income neighborhoods, the Koch administration convinced Washington to send money in the form of a Community Development Block Grant—enough to cover an administrator’s salary and $10 million in capital improvements.

“I was given this nice big budget, and put in there and told: Do what you can do,” said Thomas. “But one of the things we hope you’ll be able to do over time is to raise private dollars as well.”

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First, though, she worked to spend the government’s money, on the Picnic House, the Tennis House, the Boathouse, the Bandshell, the ball fields, and on programming. Soon, visits were up. By 1984, they had already more than doubled, to 4.4 million. In 1987, the park’s philanthropic partner, the Prospect Park Alliance, came into existence. As the park’s administrator, Thomas served as the nonprofit’s president, too. The carousel was its first big capital project.

“People can name a carousel, they can have a plaque,” said Thomas. “It was something that everybody loved.”

The carousel, though, was a wreck. It cost, in the end, $800,000 to fix it. But the alliance raised that money. It threw its first gala. It put the horses up to bid. To put your name on a plaque underneath one of those horses cost $5,000. They’re still there.

There are more than 450 parks inNew York and although a handful of nonprofits provide citywide support for parks, only one out of every ten, if that, also has some sort of private group watching out for it. Some of the parks that benefit from private support are among the nicest: Fort Greene, Riverside, Washington Square, Fort Tryon.

Now that the mayor is moving to Gracie Mansion, he will be living with a philanthropy-attracting park as his backyard: The Carl Schurz Park Conservancy is one of the oldest nonprofits in the city to have as its focus a single park. The city’s government essentially subcontracts the operation of Central Park to its conservancy, which was founded in 1981 and now has a relatively massive endowment of around $200 million.

As the city cut back budgets for parks decade after decade, these private groups have helped to maintain and revitalize some of the best parks in the city today. The earlier ones worked well enough that, in 1991, with parks still hurting for money, the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks released a report that advocated for “the expansion of philanthropy” in New York’s green spaces. Today, many of the city’s newest and most lauded parks—the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park—depend heavily on private money for their continued existence.

These parks represent just a fraction of the 29,000 acres of parks and playgrounds and other recreational space that the parks department oversees and the thousands more acres of open space managed by state, federal or private groups. The parks in the city that enjoy the most private support have thrived, whether big (Prospect Park) or small (Bryant Park).

But parks that lack private benefactors have suffered. Most often, these are parks in less well-off neighborhoods. Outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn, some of the city’s largest parks—Pelham Bay, Flushing Meadows Corona, Van Cortlandt—have struggled to raise private money, even when groups have formed for that very purpose.

What happens now? Advocates have pressed the city to increase the capital budgets for parks, and State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat from Brooklyn, ruffled the feathers of the conservancies when he suggested last year that the most flush among them share their bounty with less fortunate parks.

But if in the past 30 years, private money helped to save parks, the bloom may now be off the city’s private-public parks-funding arrangement.

Parks often come from wealth to begin with. On the East Coast, at least, land was quickly divided up among America’s first white patrician class, and as the population grew denser and cities sprawled, land stayed empty when wealthy people willed it to.

New York State’s first parks came from land grants from some of its wealthiest citizens. In the city, the largest parks might not have come from the holdings of individual landowners, but they did form at the urging of the upper class. The first president of Brooklyn’s park commission, James S.T. Stranahan, was a businessman and real estate investor who thought that, among its other charms, a large Brooklyn park would increase the value of his own holdings.

At the same time, though, the ideology of the late 19th century demanded that parks serve a social good, for the masses.

Egbert Viele, a civil engineer, who headed up work on both Central Park and Prospect Park, thought of a park as “a rural resort, where the people of all classes, escaping from the glare, and glitter, and turmoil of the city, might find relief for the mind, and physical recreation.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, who, with Calvert Vaux, worked on both Central and Prospect Park, too, saw parks as key part of democratic society. At its peak in the early 20th century, Prospect Park was used even more heavily than it is today—in the ‘30s and ‘40s, New Yorkers clocked in around 15 million visits, to today’s 10 million.

By the end of the 1960s, however, the park was in need of a little love, and a small group called the Friends of Prospect Park formed to raise money for the park and argue its case to the city. The group was still around when Tupper Thomas started working at the park in the 1980s.

“They were always pretty upset, and rightly so—the park was a mess,” she said.

The group took a special interest in the Vale of Cashmere, the slope in the park’s northeast section (which is still sufficiently underattended that it maintains a reputation as a place for outdoor sex). Its members had not been, however, particularly successful at raising money.

The Prospect Park Alliance had the advantage of being intimately connected to the government’s park staff—Thomas, after all, headed both. As she spent her initial capital budget, Thomas began to learn about fundraising and tapped organizations—the Vincent Astor Foundation, the J.R. Kaplan Fund—that had been early supporters of the Central Park Conservancy.

In 1987, the year the alliance officially formed, the group raised $300,000. The board of directors included Brooklyn neighbors or companies located in the borough, like Brooklyn Union Gas and a local community bank.

“Central Park was the only park in the world that was raising significant dollars and that really had a conservancy,” Thomas said. “Our concern was to be taken seriously as a fund-raising thing.”

It helped that the neighborhoods around the park were changing, too. It meant that there were people with some money who now had a personal stake in the park’s success. It also meant that the community was becoming more politically active—demanding more for its park from the city.

The alliance, also, was pressing harder on elected officials to advocate for Prospect Park’s budget. One summer, the alliance assigned a young supporter the task of documenting where each request for park permit was coming from and which schools were coming to the park for field trips—any data that would show city reps that their constituencies were benefitting. The park needed government support, measured in dollars, if it was going to improve.

“This is a park that had gone downhill because government had not done the right thing in the first place,” Thomas said.

But support from public money also helped leverage private: “The private sector felt better about coming in because there was already these activities happening,” she said.

This, conservancy administrators say, can be one of the most powerful functions of a park nonprofit—leveraging public money to attract private money, and vice versa. When the alliance eventually started rehabilitating the park’s natural areas in the 1990s, its most expensive capital project yet, about a third of the funding came from private contributors; the bulk of the rest was earmarked by the borough president and the mayor.

For a park that has a strong conservancy like the alliance, depending on both private and public dollars works well. It enables ambitious projects, gives private individuals, foundations and companies an avenue to contribute to a community, and lets public officials provide their constituents with public services (and cut ribbons).

But it means that the greater parks system serves New Yorkers unequally—not just because some parks have more private funding.

Successful conservancies are strong advocates for their parks, not just to private donors but to public officials who are responsible for huge chunks of the capital funding that parks need to become and stay pleasant, even parks with substantial private support.

Across the city, the infrastructure of parks don’t have substantial private support has, often, deteriorated. This isn’t just true for tiny parks used by just one community: Even the city’s larger, crowd-drawing parks have not been kept up, even though they, like Prospect Park, are resources for communities beyond their immediate periphery.

In Queens’ Forest Park for instance, the greenhouse, which was designed by the same firm that built the city’s Botanical Garden, had fallen into disrepair and, in some spots, became little more than a concrete foundation with some rusting limbs attached. In 2009, the City Council, mayor’s office and Queens borough president finally decided to send some money its way. Four million dollars and three years later, it’s improved.

Flushing Meadow Corona Park, meanwhile, is perhaps the best example of the disparities inherent in the current set-up. The park is the city’s fourth largest, and attracts millions of visitors, but has only a fraction of the staff of Prospect or Central Parks.

It’s not just projects like greenhouses or carousels that go untended either. In parks without private support, the decay is far more basic: Walkways go unrepaired, public bathrooms close, lawns are left unseeded, trash lingers.

And it’s clear that public-private partnerships that have worked for parks in wealthy neighborhoods don’t have the same impact elsewhere in the city.

In 1983, just a few years after Thomas started, the Koch administrator used another influx of CDBG funding to hire an administrator to cover both Pelham Bay Park and Van Cortlandt Park, the city’s first and third largest parks, both in the Bronx.

Like Thomas, the administrator, Denise Shaffer-Berne, aimed to raise money from the private sector.

‘’The first thing I have to do is pull together the constituency and develop an awareness of these two parks,” she told the Times. ‘’We have to see who is using them and who is not using them. Then we will be able to go to foundations and individuals and describe our needs.’’

A decade later, the two parks had decidedly not seen the kind of transformation that Prospect Park did. In 1992, with parks budgets still on the decline, a friends group formed to muster private support for Van Cortlandt Park. Although it’s been able to augment park programming and provide some support, Friends of Van Cortlandt Park has never had the same financial success as the conservancies located in wealthier parts of the city. In 2013, for instance, it raised $416,612, about half of which came from foundations.

The creation of new groups, too, has slowed. The organizations that back some of the city’s newer parks, like the High Line, were formed a decade, or more, into the past. It is still possible to leverage this model: One of the city’s most recently formed parks nonprofits, the Four Freedoms Parks Conservancy, began in 2011 and the next year raised more than $8 million and spent $9.4 million on the construction of a park memorializing Franklin D. Roosevelt on the tip of Roosevelt Island. A little less than two-thirds of the money for the new park, which is part of the state system, came from private donors.

But this conservancy also had some unusual advantages—a plan designed in the 1970s by the architect Louis Kahn, an added mission of honoring one of America’s favorite presidents, and a founding chair, Ambassador William J. van den Heuvel, with deep connections though both the public and private sectors.

In the current system, this is what matters for a park—having a strong and savvy advocate. If that advocate is a public official, he or she might use the power of the office to send funds to the park he or she loves. If that advocate is a private citizen or the head of a public-private partnership, he or she will still need the help of elected officials to make the most ambitious projects happen. And one of the best ways to get a public official’s attention is to come armed with pledges of private funds.

The problem with this system isn’t that there’s private money involved. It’s that parks depend on being lucky in love, finding champions who happen to also have the skills to attract attention. Wealthy people are more likely to have been trained in these dark arts, and since people tend to love the parks that are close to them, parks in wealthy neighborhoods are more likely to have strong advocates. And so, like children fortunate enough to be born into wealthy families, those parks end up with more resources showered on them. The same dynamic shows up in education: kids in wealthy neighborhoods have more options.

But in parks, where the department has no dedicated capital budget of its own, there’s no check on this disparity, and no one making sure that no park is left behind.

This article appeared in the July issue of Capital magazine.