Monday, July 12, 2010

Central Park Conservancy: The Back Story

The role that the Central Park Conservancy—the nonprofit organization that has been managing Central Park for some time—has played in our development of a strategy for seeing the American River Parkway be managed by a nonprofit, is well known by our members and those who have followed our organization.

Philanthropy Magazine has profiled the major philanthropist whose leadership, vision, and money, set in motion the renewing of Central Park the Conservancy was responsible for.

An excerpt.

“In 1969, legendary investor Richard Gilder moved his stockbrokerage firm’s offices from Wall Street to midtown Manhattan and started walking to work each day across Central Park. The native New Yorker had not realized until then how drastically a few years of bad government had ruined and degraded what he recalled as his idyllic childhood playground. Everywhere, he saw smashed streetlights, shattered benches, drug-dealing thugs, and spaced-out bums. He knew that the trash-choked weeds hid infected heroin needles, and the bushes, muggers. Hardly a blade of grass grew on the lawns, now pocked dustbowls that rain turned to mud.

“I was totally horrified,” Gilder says. “But I think horror is a tremendous thing to have on your side. It is so stark, it just drives you to action.” He launched a two-decade-long campaign to save the 843-acre park, which he capped in 1991 with a $17 million gift—over $27 million today—to restore the Great Lawn at the park’s heart to its Elysian green. That dramatic gesture of daring generosity made us demoralized New Yorkers believe for the first time that our crime-ridden, nearly bankrupt city could become the world’s capital once again. It restored our optimism and self-confidence, reminding us that human ingenuity can solve problems human folly has caused. Some philanthropic gifts, after all, can lift a whole community’s spirit….

“Seed Capital

“Central Park had been Gilder’s backyard ever since he was a boy. In the 1930s, his New Orleans–born mother, the daughter of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine who settled in Mississippi in the 1830s, walked him daily around the park in his stylish wicker perambulator. He played softball there most afternoons after school at P.S. 166 and then P.S. 6. On weekends he rowed on the lake or sledded down the hills. When he returned to his hometown in the mid-1950s as a young stockbroker—a profession he fell into by accident after school at Mount Hermon, Yale, and an unhappy few months at Yale Law—he played a ferocious game of touch football there with fellow Wall Streeters every single fall and winter Sunday for years, rain, shine, or snow.

“In 1968, Gilder left A. G. Becker to start his own stockbrokerage firm “after I had a little disagreement with the boss.” By then, Mayor John V. Lindsay had transformed Central Park into a case study in how not to run a city. Lindsay, the quintessential 1960s limousine liberal, had turned almost every foolish idea of the era into public policy. His Welfare Commissioner, Mitchell “Come-and-Get-It” Ginsberg, had more than doubled the welfare rolls in the name of social justice, deepening the city’s social pathology; his Parks Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, had invited huge crowds to trample Central Park’s lawns into hardpan at rock concerts and at “Hoving’s Happenings,” celebrations of the era’s supposedly free spirit.

“Lindsay’s belief that police should ignore supposedly “victimless” crimes like graffiti vandalism, drug dealing, public urination, and public drunkenness defaced and despoiled public spaces, none more so than Central Park. As we New Yorkers walked across that desert in those days—through the dust and stink of human and canine waste, past the muttering and disheveled deinstitutionalized madmen, under the hard, aggressive stares of the drug dealers—we knew it was not our park. It was theirs. And since such disorder breeds serious crime, we also knew, as the city’s murder rate skyrocketed up to six per day, it was as unsafe as it was unsightly.

“Unlike most New Yorkers, Gilder would not stand for this. “You don’t really realize how something becomes a part of you and you come to love it, until someone insults its dignity,” he says. So he went to see Hoving’s successor, August Heckscher, to see what he could do. Wall Street tycoon George Soros made a similar offer of help shortly afterward, Gilder recalls. “They told him there was another crackpot who’d been messing around; maybe you two guys should get together.” So the two investors decided to go long on Central Park. They sponsored a study showing how private money, a private Board of Guardians, and modern management could rescue the derelict park, and they set up the Central Park Community Fund to begin turning the study into reality.

“By then Abe Beame was mayor,” Gilder recalls dryly. “He hated Manhattan: he was from Brooklyn. He had no use for parks.” For four years, Gilder felt he was tilting at windmills. “We made very little progress, because the mayor was against us.” Beame had a revolving door for Parks Commissioners, with a new one every year, “so we’d just get used to one’s prejudices, and he was fired,” Gilder recounts. “But we weren’t doing any better; we had four successive executive directors. Every time they fired somebody, we fired somebody.” The fund bought a few trucks and some needed equipment for the park’s demoralized, inefficient union workforce, but its main accomplishment was merely to hang in there. “Here’s what I learned from this,” Gilder says: “If you have a good idea, it’ll build, no matter how you screw it up.”

“When Edward Koch took over City Hall in 1978, “the sun burst through,” Gilder says. The new mayor’s Parks Commissioner, Gordon Davis, invented the position of Central Park Administrator for a dynamic urbanist, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Rogers was running what she calls a “teeny, peanut” nonprofit, the Central Park Task Force, that she had started as a youth summer-jobs program in 1975. The entrepreneurial Gilder did what entrepreneurs do: he recognized talent, backed it, and egged it on. His community fund merged with her task force to form the Central Park Conservancy, of which Gilder was a founding trustee. “He was an investor, he would say,” recalls Rogers, “and he was investing in, you know, me—and the belief that this could be done.”

“The Central Park Conservancy laid out a master plan for managing and restoring the park, and set about gradually executing it, zone by zone, project by project, as it could raise money. Harlem Meer, on the park’s north edge, turned from a fetid, garbage-choked cesspool back into a crystalline pond, its burned-out boathouse resurrected into a steeply gabled, cupola-crowned romantic confection in pink and green, looking like it had been there since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the park just before the Civil War.

“The Central Park Conservancy laid out a master plan for managing and restoring the park, and set about gradually executing it, zone by zone, project by project, as it could raise money. Harlem Meer, on the park’s north edge, turned from a fetid, garbage-choked cesspool back into a crystalline pond, its burned-out boathouse resurrected into a steeply gabled, cupola-crowned romantic confection in pink and green, looking like it had been there since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the park just before the Civil War.

“Restorers healed the broken, graffiti-smeared sandstone and crumbled bricks of Bethesda Terrace, where wayward teens had congregated nightly for a decade to smoke dope and misbehave, and transformed it back into New York’s most meltingly beautiful spot. Backed by brightly colored rowboats gliding serenely on the willow-bordered lake, the bronze angel stretching her arm over the great, repaired Victorian fountain seemed as miraculous to us New Yorkers as the angel who enchanted the biblical Pool of Bethesda’s waters so they could cure the sick of any disease they had.

“Almost as miraculous was the renewal of the park’s workforce. As skyrocketing taxes to fund government’s various nostrums, coupled with the crime and decay those nostrums produced, drove taxpayers out of the city, New York flirted with bankruptcy, and public-sector employment had to shrink. “The fiscal crisis really worked in our favor,” Rogers explains, “because you could no longer say, ‘You’re taking away the job of a union man.’”

“Gingerly, the conservancy brought in as replacements its own restorers, planters, tree experts—soothingly called interns—who “had to work alongside of and not threaten” the remaining city employees, whose work rules the budget crunch also changed. “You didn’t any longer need three men to prune a tree,” says Rogers, “one man to climb and one man on the ground to hand up the tools and a motor vehicle operator to sit in the truck and wait.” Understandably, “a them-and-us tension” lingered, she recalls, which was finally resolved in 1997, when the city elevated its public-private partnership with the conservancy into a contract for the total management of Central Park.

“But that happened only after Gilder’s grand gesture brought the conservancy’s efforts to spectacular fruition. Rogers, Gilder says, is “one of those tigresses,” and “you want to just keep throwing red meat at them as long as their mouths can open.” By the start of the 1990s, though, “Betsy began to run out of steam,” Gilder says. “She was a little bit like Grant in 1864, holed up there in Petersburg and not getting anywhere. And I said, ‘Betsy, what would it take to more or less finish the park?’”

“Fifty million,” Rogers shot back.

“So I kept thinking about it,” Gilder recalls. “Fifty million I can’t do. But business is pretty good; it’s going to take four or five years to do what Betsy had in mind. Could I somehow come up with $17 million over this period of time?” That would be a third of $51 million: he would challenge the city to match it with another $17 million and the citizens of New York with the final third. Now a trademark of Gilder’s philanthropic entrepreneurship, the challenge grant would not merely amplify the force of Gilder’s own contribution, giving him leverage to accomplish more. Equally important, he says, it would give him and other would-be donors a “needed critique and a market judgment” to be sure their idea made sense. “Matching is a very good way to do that, I’ve learned: if you aren’t going to be with me, then maybe the idea stinks.”

“This idea sang, the money poured in, and once the huge, 55-acre Great Lawn sprang back to life in velvety, shimmering green, connecting all the other improvements around it, New Yorkers suddenly realized they had the park back, whole and pristine, and they flocked into it. With such a magnificent, manicured, orderly public space at its center, the whole city stood poised for the urban rebirth that the 1990s accomplished. “You could even say we were a leading indicator,” Gilder beams. “As the park began to improve, the rest of the city did too.”

“None of this—the new drains, the sprinklers, the imported topsoil, the careful gardening—is about ecology or being “green,” of course. It is a triumph of cultivation, nurture, and artifice, for the park is a consummate work of art that humanizes, tames, and exalts nature’s raw material, like the great man-made work of art that is the city itself. Especially to someone like Gilder—who struck his old friend Judith Berkowitz, when she met him decades ago, as “the incarnation of everything you ever thought of when you thought of urbane New Yorkers”—Central Park is a stage set for the drama of urban civility, a democratic theater where, says Gilder, “rich and poor, black and white, young and old” mingle harmoniously and watch the spectacle that is each other.

“It’s like being at a concert,” Gilder remarks, and the park is at its best “when it’s crowded, and they’re all respectful, and they’re all drinking in the cultural experience.” From 1990 to 1993, Gilder’s impulse to restore New York’s civility and vitality led him to chair the Manhattan Institute, an urban-policy think tank from whose City Journal Mayor Rudy Giuliani joked that he “plagiarized” the policies that revived Gotham.”