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Group brings shine to N.Y. jewel
Same idea could work here, some say
By WHITNEY GOULD
By the 1970s, Manhattan's Central Park was a derelict shadow of its once green and glorious self. Vistas that had been carefully sculpted by Frederick Law Olmsted and the English-born architect Calvert Vaux were overgrown. Meadows were trampled to oblivion. Historic buildings were graffiti-scarred and crumbling. Ponds were choked with trash. Crime was rampant.
Visit Central Park today, in the year of its 150th birthday, and you will find a refurbished jewel. Its greenswards restored, its buildings and statues buffed to a fare-thee-well, its trees lovingly pruned, the 843-acre park is throbbing with life.
Credit for the turnaround goes to the Central Park Conservancy, a private, non-profit group that manages the park for the City of New York, providing services from lawn care and playground maintenance to building restoration and erosion control.
Founded in 1980, the conservancy raises money from individuals and foundations to provide more than 85% of the park's $20 million annual operating budget; the city supplies the rest. The partnership, by making park support a fashionable cause, has become a national model for reclaiming neglected urban open spaces. And, its advocates say, it's a model that could work very well in Milwaukee, which has three Olmsted parks suffering the same financial stresses that imperil parks throughout the county and the nation.
"We are everybody's backyard," says Doug Blonsky, administrator and chief operating officer of the Central Park Conservancy. "If Olmsted were alive today, I think he would be overwhelmed to see what we have done here. We are not fanatics about going back to exactly what Olmsted and Vaux created. But Olmsted's democratic vision is very much alive here."
Another Olmsted creation, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, has its own version of the conservancy - the Prospect Park Alliance. It, too, has brought a deteriorating jewel back to health while increasing park use by 300%, according to the alliance's director, Tupper Thomas. Even teenagers are put to work in projects ranging from outreach to woodlands restoration.
There are as many as 100 such public/private partnerships managing Olmsted parks around the nation, from Pittsburgh and Newark, N.J., to Cleveland and Seattle, according to Jerry Baum, executive director of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.
"It's confirmation of the soundness and farsightedness of the plans (Olmsted) made more than 100 years ago," Baum says. "The more of these parks you save, the more aware people are of the treasures Olmsted left behind."
"People are beginning to see Olmsted parks as a historic preservation issue, and that has helped build a broader constituency for saving them," says Chris Walker, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "An Olmsted park becomes a metaphor for every park. Olmsted knew that parks were the civic glue around which a neighborhood functions."
Prospect Park's Thomas says Milwaukee would do well to examine the work of groups such as hers, perhaps forming a conservancy around three or four parks. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy in Louisville, Ky., for example, has raised $10 million in its first 10 years for improvements to 18 parks and parkways.
Advocates say that a broad umbrella can help fight fears that conservancies invite a two-tier park system, the favored sites gaining the support of well-heeled benefactors while parks in poorer neighborhoods go begging.
Thomas and Central Park's Blonsky say that far from leading to a system of haves vs. have-nots, the success of their conservancies has sparked so many similar groups in the five boroughs that all New York City parks have benefited. Even in the city's current fiscal crisis, Thomas notes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has restored money for parks. "He sees it as a quality of life issue," she says.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker says he is receptive to the idea of parks conservancies. "I would welcome it with both arms wide," he says. "Our bottom line is preserving the natural assets of our parks, and public/private partnerships look like a good way to do that, since their primary interest is the parks themselves."
Walker notes that there are already some precursors for such organizations locally, including Lake Park Friends, Friends of Boerner Botanical Gardens and similar groups raising money for the county-run Villa Terrace and Charles Allis decorative arts museums. The Urban Ecology Center, which runs environmental programs at Riverside Park, is another example.
"These have been pretty good partnerships," Walker says. "Larger versions of these groups could only help."
Some Milwaukee County park staffers worry, though, that among unionized park employees, fear of job losses might make it difficult to form conservancies here.
That was initially an issue in New York, but it has subsided, Thomas and Blonsky say, since conservancy employees, while non-union, are doing work that the city could not afford to do. Conservancy workers are paid wages comparable to those of their municipal counterparts.
Still, it's no breeze running a parks conservancy, advocates caution. "It can cushion a park against the ups and downs of (government) funding," Blonsky says. "But it's still a tough challenge. You're always looking for money. When the city has its downs, it's a down time for private fund raising, too."
Even so, he says, that's better than benign neglect. "Are we just going to sit around and watch a park decay and wait for government to step in?" In these straitened times, Blonsky says, that could be a long wait.
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