Seedy Business

Nelson A. Rockefeller Park is an oddity in New York City. A waterfront park in a city that has given over much of its shoreline to highways, it provides a narrow ribbon of greenery in Manhattan's financial district. Parents with toddlers gather in the lavishly appointed playground, and joggers from nearby Battery Park City enjoy the river breeze. Yet there's something odd about this park, beyond the oddity of a new public space at a time of unprecedented municipal tightfistedness. Those "Dog-Free Lawn" signs that pop up every few yards, for instance, don't quite seem like standard Parks Department issue. And those billiard-table-smooth lawns are a bit too perfect for a New York City park, even one as obviously new as this one. Only when you read the fine print on the long list of do's and don'ts at the park's entrance does it start to make sense: The logo at the bottom is for the "Battery Park City Parks Corporation." A private company owns and operates this park. Rockefeller Park is one of several strips of green that edge the new high-rise development of Battery Park City. It is a symbol of the change in how New York manages its public resources. Whether that change is for the better or worse, though, depends on your perspective. To Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the privatized lawns of Battery Park City reflect the success of "public/private partnerships," the web of private contracts and downsized municipal oversight that has come to characterize city agencies from parks to welfare. But to many parks advocates and users, they signify a frightening future for urban space: green oases near the homes and offices of the affluent, and derelict public parks in neighborhoods where the less well-heeled live. For New York and other cities where green space--or open space of any kind--is at a premium, parks supply a wide range of city residents' needs. They are ad-hoc ball fields, environments for quiet contemplation and pockets of fresh air in the surrounding ocean of asphalt--the "lungs of the city," as they were called by the old Progressive Era reformers who saw open space as a needed antidote to the city's overcrowded slums. In New York in particular, city parks have traditionally also been one of the few places for public political gatherings: Tompkins Square and Union Square have been hotbeds of anarchist and labor activity since the 19th century, and Central Park has played host to anti-nuke rallies, Soweto Day commemorations and the closing ceremonies of Gay Pride Day. The urban budget-cutting frenzies of the last 20 years have taken a heavy toll on this precious public resource. Governments across the nation have been looking to private interests to fund their public parkland. For example, Michigan contracted with Pepsi to be its official state park soft drink, and Sacramento County, Calif., has considered bankrolling a giant new park with private amenities like a conference center and golf course. But New York has led the way. Private donations to New York City parks have increased almost four-fold since 1987, at the same time as public spending has been slashed by 31 percent in real dollars. Certainly, there's nothing sinister about these new private parks on the surface. The rules of behavior at Rockefeller Park are no more strict than those at many publicly run parks. And the Battery Park City Authority, the private nonprofit that also runs the nearby housing and office development on land leased from the city, isn't exactly checking IDs at the door; park denizens include lunching Wall Street workers, the upscale residents of Battery Park City, and visiting tourists who have tired of waiting for the nearby ferries to the Statue of Liberty. Bryant Park, a tiny half-block oasis that provides the only available greenery across 40 blocks of midtown Manhattan, is another apparent success story. In the early '80s, the city turned the park over to the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, a subsidiary of the local business improvement district. (BIDs, as they are popularly known, are special districts where a private board can levy fees on their area landholders in order to "improve" the surrounding blocks.) The corporation, whose primary backers are Home Box Office and the telecommunications giant NYNEX, renovated a severely dilapidated space used primarily by homeless people and drug dealers, converting it into a clean and safe new park that is packed at lunchtime with employees from the surrounding corporate offices. Private security guards patrol the new park each day until the 7 p.m. closing time. In a wry reference to Bryant Park's many open-air cafes, sociologist Sharon Zukin has dubbed the city's policy "pacification by cappuccino."Ever since New York's long-serving parks commissioner Henry Stern declared almost a decade ago that "parks are a refuge, not an asylum," the city has been aggressively working to drive out "loiterers," specifically the homeless, from city parks. A turning point in city parks policy came when the city renovated Tompkins Square Park in the early '90s after years of pitched battles with local anarchist groups and homeless encampments--including one police riot in which hundreds were arrested or beaten, including confused yuppies out for a late-night stroll. From then on, public parks would be for a specific kind of public: Dog runs, green markets and restaurants have replaced more downscale gathering spaces like the old Tompkins Square band shell. These sorts of renovations often increase the number of people who use the parks. But the new policy also conspicuously dovetails with the desire of property owners for green spaces that will increase the value of the surrounding blocks. "The private group is not just doing this as philanthropy; they're doing it to raise property values," says Zukin, whose CUNY Graduate Center office is right across the street from Bryant Park. "They're also doing it as a trade-off for control of the park." And unlike the parks department, the Bryant Park BID is not accountable to the public--not even to its own members, since BID leadership is appointed by an unelected board. Even Central Park, the "single most democratic space in the city," as one local journalist memorably called it, has begun subtly shifting its focus. The Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit group, has raised millions of dollars in private contributions since being given virtual control over the park in 1980. It has used the money to renovate huge swathes of the park with an eye to more genteel uses. For example, the Central Park Zoo has been upgraded from a ramshackle public amenity with free admission to a state-of-the-art privately run "wildlife center," with a $2.50 entry fee. Between the Central Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance in Brooklyn, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation and the Battery Park City Parks Corporation, some of the city's most prominent open spaces have been placed under partial private control in exchange for private fundraising. This turn of events has left the city's longtime parks advocates torn. "The money that has been made available by having admission charges has kept those gardens beautiful in an era of no resources from the government," says Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, which works primarily with neighborhood community garden groups, in reference to the city's once free botanic gardens. "But they have also excluded important communities from these spaces. There's no question about it that when you put an admission fee on a place like that, a lot of people don't get to use it as often as they once did." And even as the Parks Council, the city's leading parks advocacy group, was granting the Battery Park City parks an award for design excellence, its officials worried about the implications of private influence on the city parks system. They're particularly bothered by the specter of increased advertising in privatized parks, which the city cannot regulate. "But then," adds the council's Marcia Reiss, "the Parks Department is doing more advertising than we'd like to see. Because they are hard-pressed for money, they are inviting a lot of advertisers into the parp as they never did before." "We're never going to change Central Park to 'Budweiser Park,' " a mayoral aide promised the New York Times in May. But the city did rent out the park's Great Lawn to Disney for the premiere of its movie Pocahontas (for $1 million, 20 percent of which went to pay police overtime for the event) in June 1995. It also allowed a candy company to hand out Snickers bars at a promotional event last summer and recently solicited bids from soft-drink companies to become the "official soft drink of the Parks Department." Parks advocates, however, are most concerned about what privatization has meant for the rest of the city parks system, which has seen its already meager funding dwindle still further over a decade of city budget cuts. "They're not bringing as much money into the system as the system needs," says Reiss. "I think there has been a misleading impression that because Central Park has been so successful, that every other park can be operated under the same model. But Central Park is in the most affluent area in New York City. That model works for Central Park; it won't work for communities in the South Bronx."To see the flip side of privatization, you need only go about two miles downstream from Rockefeller Park, to the old shipping district of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Long devoid of industry and cut off from the rest of the borough by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Red Hook has a park of its own: Coffey Park, a square block of greenery and stately sycamore trees across the street from the low-rise housing project that dominates the neighborhood. On a sunny Memorial Day, Coffey Park is virtually empty--no one at the three rotting picnic benches, no one lounging on the lawns of uncut grass overgrown with dandelions. The parks building in the adjoining playground features brightly colored murals on all sides but is missing half of its roof. A woman barbecuing with her family at Coffey Park's eastern fringe chats freely about the park, though she declines to give her name. "They keep it pretty clean--when they want to," she says. "The main thing we need is a bathroom. There's no bathroom." Coffey Park doesn't look much different from the way Central Park did two decades ago, when the New York Times termed the city parks system "a dirty, unkempt, vandalized shadow of its former self." The difference is that while Central Park has undergone a renaissance sparkew in part by private money, Coffey Park, like the hundreds of other small neighborhood parks that dot the outer boroughs of New York, has largely deteriorated in silence, far from the eye of the Manhattan-based policy-makers and media.A recent study by New York's Independent Budget Office, a recently established budget oversight agency, bears this out. Over the last 10 years, city parks funding has been slashed to the bone. The city now spends less than 0.5 percent of its budget on parks, the lowest rate of any major U.S. city. (That the parks haven't fallen apart completely can be credited to the city's workfare program, which has funneled 5,000 welfare participants into unpaid part-time park-cleaning jobs, even as the parks department has laid off over half that many permanent employees.) In Manhattan, which receives two-thirds of all private parks donations (more than three-quarters of which goes to the Central Park Conservancy alone), total park spending, public and private combined, has dropped by 21 percent since 1987. In the Bronx, combined parks funding has plummeted 46 percent over the same period, and the other outer boroughs have fared nearly as poorly. Making it worse for these poorer neighborhoods, adds Lutz from the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, is the city's policy of selling off city-owned land that local residents have been using for community gardens. "The community gardens almost always are in neighborhoods that are severely underserved," he says. Regardless of what price the land will fetch (not much in most depressed areas), the city government has pursued a policy of selling any city-owned vacant land for whatever money it will raise. As Lutz explains, "The city wants to sell off all of its inventory of land, and they refuse to look at a community garden. They put their faces up to the fence and see nothing." This loss of green space would set off alarms if it were happening in Manhattan. But the deterioration of outer borough parks has flown under media radar. "My hope is just to get people to realize what's going on," says Lutz, "and it's harder when Central Park is being cared for." It's hard to root against cleaner parks, no matter what neighborhood they're located in--even Lutz's group is eagerly trying to secure private funding for a new park in a planned luxury development on the Manhattan waterfront. But like the city's special public schools, which cater to elite students while other children are forced to study in corridors and converted closets, New York's parks policy seems to be evolving toward an open-space triage: just green enough in the right places to allow the rest of the city to go to seed unnoticed.

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