The Central Park Conservancy
In the 1980s, well-organized Central Park advocates won a fundamental and historic change in the administration of the park, which moved crucial aspects of financing and administration from the public to the private sector, that is, to the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. As its chairman explained it, the conservancy's goals were "to assist in the physical restoration of the park and to bring about improvements in its maintenance and security." But as the Times acknowledged, there was a broader mandate; the conservancy "would in effect, constitute a board of trustees," on the model of a museum or orchestra board. [Ch185]
The political and economic climate of the 1970s paved the way for such an independent board. In the fiscal crisis officials began to turn to private money to maintain public services, and this tactic of expediency intersected with the program of neo-conservatives and neo-liberals who doubted the ability of government to provide a full array of city services, or even the desirability of such provisions. [Ch187] Central Park, which had once served as a monument to a more activist state and an expansive vision of the public good, was now to provide a testing ground for an experiment in narrowing the public sector.
In an unusual power-sharing arrangement, a Central Park administrator was to serve as the chief executive officer of both the park and the conservancy. [Ch1813] In 1979 Park Commissioner Gordon J. Davis had appointed as Central Park administrator Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, a park activist and the author of books and articles on parks and on Olmsted. Davis asked Rogers to raise money privately for her own salary as administrator. In 1980 this arrangement was formalized with the creation of the conservancy, which replaced Rogers's own Central Park Task Force and also another private fund-raising group, the Central Park Community Fund. [Ch1814]
Starting in 1982, Rogers oversaw a talented team of landscape architects who undertook an exhaustive three-year survey of all aspects of the park -- from soil conditions to traffic patterns. From this came a master plan, Rebuilding Central Park, that envisioned spending $150 million for a "systematic and coherent renovation" over a ten- to fifteen-year period. By the end of its first decade, the Central Park Conservancy had raised more than $65 million for this public-private venture. [Ch1819]
The master restoration plan took the Greensward plan "whenever possible, as a reference and guide." There was widespread agreement about the need to reverse the deterioration of the 1970s, although a literal restoration was not possible. The final restoration plan dropped, for example, the recommendations of an earlier draft that called for phasing out some of the twenty-five ball fields, relocating or eliminating some of the playgrounds, and removing "hard-surface activities such as tennis, basketball and baseball ... to locations outside the park." [Ch1820] Such features served too broad a constituency to be eliminated.
Under Davis, the parks department had already begun some restoration. By the end of the 1980s, with the infusion of conservancy money, Central Park looked startlingly different from its appearance just a decade earlier: visitors stretched out on a lush, green Sheep Meadow, now guarded by a fence and by rules against loud noises and active sports; schoolchildren learned about the environment in a graffiti-free Belvedere Castle; skaters glided across the new (Trump-operated) ice-skating rink; tourists picked up information about the park's past and present at a refurbished Dairy; fashion photographers posed their models against the backdrop of a lovingly restored Bethesda Terrace; wedding couples took their vows in a replanted Conservatory Garden; New Yorkers who could afford it dined on the terrace of the renovated Loeb Boathouse. The one important new addition was, appropriately, a landscape project, Strawberry Fields, a parcel of land near the West 72nd Street entrance, landscaped as a memorial to John Lennon with funds provided by his widow, Yoko Ono. [Ch1821]
By the 1980s newspaper editorials and magazines were celebrating the park's "season of rebirth" under the conservancy's aegis. Movies and advertisements implicitly carried the same message. In the 1970s Central Park had provided a setting for jokes about muggings in such films as Where's Poppa. By the late 1980s it was a backdrop for films about urban affluence and elegance – When Harry Met Sally, Wall Street, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. [Ch1825]
What was gained in the 1980s was a very tangible improvement in the physical condition of Central Park. What was lost was a very intangible -- but still real -- sense of commitment to the public provision of recreational resources for all New Yorkers.