Gotham Gazette

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Central Park of Art, Beetles and Cars; First Budget Hearings on Parks

The Whitney Museum's Biennial this spring includes five large-scale artworks by contemporary New York artists commissioned for specific sites in Central Park. This is the first time the park has been part of a major museum exhibit, and also the first time the Whitney Biennial has exhibited art in an outdoor public space. The installations, organized by the Public Art Fund, include a fifty-foot-high leafless tree made of stainless steel near a stand of magnificent American elms, and an ephemeral series of splashes beneath Bow Bridge that appear to be caused by something being dropped into the water.

"Central Park has had a long history of displaying public art on both a permanent and temporary basis," said Rick Lepkowski, spokesman for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that manages the park. There are traditional statues like the Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Fountain, the only sculpture commissioned during the original design of Central Park. The Public Art Fund sponsors rotating exhibits of contemporary sculpture at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza on Fifth Avenue at 60th Street, and temporary individual pieces have been displayed occasionally in other parts of the park.

Although the exhibition in Central Park was arranged before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office, it could be a harbinger of more ambitious public art to come during his administration. At the press conference announcing the opening of the Whitney Biennial in Central Park, Mayor Bloomberg indicated that he would be open to reconsidering a proposal made in 1981 by the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude for a work covering the entire landscape of Central Park. At the time, the Parks department rejected the installation, called "The Gates," partly because of the crowds it would draw. The concept, which can be viewed on a web site devoted to the artists, involves framing the park's pathways with a series of fifteen-foot-high metal gates. Suspended from each gate would be a free-hanging, golden-colored woven panel meant to wave in the wind toward the next gate. Mayor Bloomberg, who was a board member of the Central Park Conservancy at the time, had argued strongly in favor of the Christo project.

A much less welcome arrival in Central Park this year is the Asian long-horned beetle. In January, during a survey of the park, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered the imported pest in two trees in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a fenced-off grove of trees in the southeast corner of the park. The Asian long-horned beetle first appeared in New York City in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 1996. It has since infiltrated trees in other parts of Brooklyn, in Bayside and Flushing, Queens, and in several locations in Manhattan. The parks department is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to determine whether the beetle has infected additional trees in the park. The agencies are also injecting Central Park trees with the pesticide imidacloprid to test whether it can prevent the spread of the beetle. But as of now, the only sure way to kill the beetle and its eggs and to stop it from moving to other trees is to cut down, chip, and burn infested trees. So far, the city has had to destroy about 3,500 infested street, park, and backyard trees. The parks department recently received a state forestry grant of $200,000 to replace trees all over the city that had to be felled because of the beetle.

The one- to one-and-a-half-inch beetle is shiny black with white spots, and long, black-and-white banded antennae. It chews depressions in the bark of trees to lay its eggs. Once hatched, the larvae tunnel into a tree's interior to feed, killing the tree. Characteristic signs of the beetle are pencil- or dime-sized holes in upper tree trunks; piles of sawdust at the base of the tree or where branches meet the trunk; and dark stains from sap seeping out of the holes. The insect has a preference for maples, but will lay its eggs in many other types of hardwood trees. To report beetle sightings, call 1-877-stop-alb. For more information, check the USDA web site.

While the city is adding art to Central Park, some people would like to see another element subtracted: the automobile. Car-Free Central Park, a campaign of Transportation Alternatives, an advocate for pedestrians and cyclists, is calling for a ban on car traffic on the park's loop drive. (This would not affect the four sunken east-west transverse roads, which Olmsted and Vaux designed to minimize the impact of traffic.) The group's immediate goal is a three-month summer moratorium, to see how traffic patterns and park use would be affected. The new Speaker of the City Council, Gifford Miller, is on record as supporting the eviction of cars from Central Park, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said, "not in your or my lifetime." Campaign leaders aim to gather 100,000 signatures in a petition drive, which they hope will convince the mayor to change his mind.

The Parks and Recreation committee of the New York City Council held a hearing March 19 on the parks department budget, the first step in the council's consideration of Mayor Bloomberg's proposed cuts to the city's 2003 budget. The mayor has called for across-the-board cuts of 13 percent to most city agencies, with additional "contingency" reductions of 7.5 percent.

The hearing was the first held by the newly created stand-alone council committee on parks and recreation. Committee chairman Joseph Addabbo, Jr., led off the session saying that this "affects real people," and that the loss of funding would have an impact on the safety and condition of the parks. "If you want to see a community go down the tubes," he said, "just neglect the parks."

Noting the seriousness of the city's current deficit, the new parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, told the committee, "It is not enough to say you must increase the budget of an agency without identifying where it will come from." Later testimony from representatives of civic and park groups called for restoring the money the mayor proposed to cut from the parks budget. Among those speaking was former parks commissioner Henry Stern. He said the city should give the revenue from park concessions to the parks budget instead of the city's general fund, reminding the committee that most council members and the mayor had promised to do this during the election.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

The New Parks Chief; Also, Greenways Are Good

In one of his last major appointments, Mayor Bloomberg chose a parks department insider, Adrian Benepe, for his commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Benepe, who has been the Manhattan borough parks commissioner since 1996, first worked for the department during the summer as a teenager. Later, he began his career in the city's first class of urban park rangers, and has since held a broad range of positions at the department -- director of art and antiquities, director of natural resources, operations coordinator, and head of public information. He has also worked at the Municipal Art Society and the New York Botanical Garden.

Benepe is taking over from long-time parks commissioner Henry Stern at a challenging time. The parks department has less than half the fulltime staff it had 15 years ago to maintain 1,700 parks, playgrounds and recreation centers; its operating budget was never restored when the city's finances improved over the last decade. Nevertheless, Commissioner Stern was able to improve conditions in many parks. He made the department more efficient, found a way to use capital funds for maintenance, and raised money for the parks through a controversial policy of charging fees to private groups to use the parks for events. Several thousand part-time workers also supplemented the department's fulltime staff as part of a federally subsidized program to help welfare recipients enter the job market. Many parks are cleaner, safer, and better-appreciated by the public than they have been in years. This was made clear when New Yorkers spontaneously gathered in parks all over the city after September 11.

During last year's election campaign, a coalition of civic groups and park supporters called Parks 2001 secured promises from most of the candidates to increase public funding for parks and to distribute that funding more equitably throughout the five boroughs. But now the city is projecting a $4 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year, and the parks department, like all city agencies, is instead being asked to make additional cuts. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed budget would reduce parks operating funds by 13 percent and would halve capital funding, which the department uses for smaller maintenance jobs as well as renovations and new projects. The city is also reevaluating the assignment of welfare workers to the parks department. The loss of funding and workers threatens to return the city to the era of dirty and dangerous parks.

To help offset the loss of public funding, Mayor Bloomberg has said that he will ask the private sector to do more. Parks already receive a great deal of financial and volunteer support from nonprofits and individuals. The papers recently reported that Commissioner Benepe is considering having corporations sponsor the maintenance of park facilities in exchange for naming rights. Benepe said that naming rights would be appropriate only in some circumstances, for example, athletic fields, and that the city would pass up opportunities that would over-commercialize the parks. "We are not selling off our parks to the highest bidder. We would rather go without than do something that is inappropriate," he told the New York Times.

New Yorkers for Parks, a new independent advocacy organization formed by the merger of the 100-year-old Parks Council with Parks 2001, supports the idea, as long as there is oversight of where the money goes and how facilities or parks are named, said spokeswoman Rowena Daly. "There needs to be a task force or plan so that the money benefits all five boroughs and every single neighborhood."


In his State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would complete a longstanding plan for a recreational path circling Manhattan. "The success of the Hudson River Park demonstrates the need to make our entire waterfront accessible to walkers and cyclists," he said.

The mayor put his promise for a waterfront greenway in the category of "our livelihood, jobs, and development." This suggests that he will take a broader approach to economic development, and that he understands that investing in parks and recreation is a key factor in making the city a great place to live and do business in the 21st century. His focus on greenways is also pragmatic, because federal funding is available for 80 percent of greenway construction through the TEA-21 legislation that promotes alternate transportation. This is a project that can be done even in bad times.

All over the country, greenways - hybrids of parks, non-motorized travel routes, and recreation trails - have become increasingly popular. They claim a little space from an urban and suburban streetscape ruled by the car (or SUV) and truck. These landscaped pavements provide a safe, relaxing, and aesthetically pleasing way for people to get exercise or to get somewhere on foot or bicycle. Greenways also have the potential to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and gas consumption, and to encourage active recreation, all of which benefit the health of a city's citizens and its economy.

A prototype for this type of corridor is in Seattle, where more than a million people a year (three-quarters on bicycles) use the 25-mile Burke-Gilman Trail for both commuting and recreation. Studies have shown that real estate values have increased in areas accessible to the trail, and that the trail also spurred commercial and residential development. Other successful greenways are featured on Urban Parks online, a web site from the Project for Public Spaces, including Chicago's lakeside string of parks and Florida's 47-mile Pinellas Trail. It is easy to imagine how greenways, along with new parks, housing, and businesses, could transform the edge of Manhattan, which already has the built-in allure of great views and proximity to the water.

New York City has had a Greenway Plan for all five boroughs since 1993. The Department of City Planning created it from proposals developed earlier by the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, the Bronx borough president, and others. The proposed greenway runs 350 miles and has links to the East Coast Greenway, which will go from Maine to Florida. About 75 miles are complete, with another 80 in the works. According to David Lutz, director of the open space coalition, the Giuliani administration deserves credit for initiating the plan and moving it along. But until now, no mayor has actively promoted the concept, the way, for example, Mayor Giuliani promoted baseball stadiums. "For 15 years, we've been working on greenways in New York City," says Lutz. "All of a sudden it's no longer some wild-eyed idea."

Soon people should be able to bike, skate, and jog along much of the West Side as the Hudson River Park is completed and parks are linked all the way to the George Washington Bridge. But there are still numerous obstacles to closing the loop around northern Manhattan and down the East Side. And local volunteer groups have been pushing for the completion of paths planned along the downtown Brooklyn waterfront, the Bronx River, and elsewhere in the outer boroughs. One of the things the city could do right away is to review how city-owned waterfront property is used. Right now the city is parking cars, washing buses, and storing road salt on prime waterfront land. New York City Councilmember David Yassky, who heads the council's waterfront committee, plans to introduce legislation requiring the city to inventory its waterfront lots annually and to determine whether the use of each site is related to the waterfront.

New Yorkers are already voting for the concept of greenways with their feet. They are out in force, with cycles, scooters, skates, and strollers, the minute a new section of the Hudson River Park opens. To paraphrase the mantra of the greenway movement: "If you build it, Mayor Bloomberg, we will come."

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.


A New Policy Towards Parks?

With a new mayoral administration and a new New York City Council, there may be some changes in how the city addresses the parks system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been slow in naming a new commissioner for the parks department, but the City Council has already taken action by forming a separate committee for the oversight of parks and recreation. The new committee will be chaired by Joseph Addabbo, Jr., of Queens, who is considered a strong supporter of parks. Park advocates had been lobbying for this change. Previously, parks issues were addressed through a committee that also covered cultural affairs, libraries, and inter-group relations.

Although both Mayor Bloomberg and new New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller mentioned the importance of parks in their inaugural speeches and supported increased funding for parks during the campaign, it remains to be seen how the city's budget problems will affect park and recreation services. The parks department operating budget has declined 40 percent since 1986, although the capital budget was increased in recent years.

Now there is uncertainty about whether the parks department will lose the labor provided by thousands of former welfare recipients under a subsidized seasonal jobs program. The New York Times reported that just before the end of the Giuliani administration, the former human resources commissioner notified the parks department that he was shifting 3,500 former welfare recipients working for the parks department at union wages to a private temp employment agency paying a lower hourly wage. It is unclear whether they will be making this lower wage at the parks department, or whether they will be now working elsewhere.

About 200 of these parks workers whose assignment ends in February could be the first to be affected. Human Resources Administration spokeswoman Deborah Sproles said, however, that that no action has been taken so far, and that the change was being considered only as one option in an overall reassessment of the program. She says the city is looking at the program in the light of funding issues and of finding the right balance between private and public sector jobs. Yes, it is possible that the workers may not be reassigned to the parks department, she said. "The question is what is best for the workers -- that's going to drive what the final program looks like."

The welfare workers are paid mostly through a federal program and not from the parks department budget. During the past eight years, the parks department has come to depend heavily upon these workers to clean and maintain the parks as the number of regular parks employees has been cut. Parks department positions dropped from more than 4,000 in 1991 to about 1,900 now. A November 1, 2000 report by the Independent Budget Office looked at the contribution welfare workers made in improving park conditions at a time when the parks department lost more than half its staff. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's request to city agencies to cut their budgets by 20 percent is likely to further reduce the parks department's work force.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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