Soundings

Conrad Kiechel
The Nonprofit That Saved Central Park
Thirty years after its founding, the Conservancy inspires other cities.
Winter 2010

It’s a beautiful day in New York’s Central Park, and Isabella Rossellini is whispering in my ear. “Beneath the leafy canopy, you are surrounded by miracles of nature,” she says of the scene that confronts me: the hilly, arboreal midsection of the park known as the Ramble. “Countless creatures call the Ramble home.” Rossellini’s is just one of about 30 famous voices that I can summon to describe the park by punching two digits on my phone. This cellular companionship is provided by the Central Park Conservancy, the innovative organization that, since 1980, has spearheaded the park’s spectacular rejuvenation.

I remember a very different Central Park when I was a college student in Manhattan in the 1970s. I even recall passing through the Ramble. Countless creatures called it home then, too—most of whom you wouldn’t want to run into, day or night. The park’s lawns were dust bowls; its trees’ limbs were broken, their roots exposed; graffiti and inoperative lights marred the once-manicured landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. “It was so awful,” recalls Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, an urban planner from Texas who became the park’s administrator in 1979. “Central Park was under a unionized, civil-service workforce. They were demoralized. It would take three men to prune a tree because of the job titles.”

The change began when Rogers formed an alliance with Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis. Davis started cutting deadwood in his department, a traditional dumping ground for patronage jobs. He also decentralized his department’s operations—first down to the borough level, then to the park level. And Rogers championed the idea that private money and workers would play a key role in the park’s restoration. The Central Park Conservancy was born in 1980—what current park administrator Douglas Blonsky calls a “revolutionary public/private partnership that would bring private monies and expertise, in partnership with the City of New York, to manage and restore Central Park.”

In this partnership, the Conservancy manages Central Park under a contract with the city. It also raises money for the park. Over its 30-year existence, the Conservancy has overseen $500 million of investment, nearly 80 percent of it from private sources. But the Conservancy owes its success less to its knack for holding soirées for wealthy donors than to its ability to tap into New Yorkers’ love for Central Park. Today, nearly 300 volunteers donate some 30,000 hours of labor each year. A generation ago, public employees ran the park; today, more than three-quarters of the workforce is private, either volunteers or Conservancy employees.

On a fall Saturday morning, I joined a volunteer group raking leaves near the Great Lawn. Since Abe Denowitz retired from his desk job 20 years ago, he and his wife have pitched in almost every weekend, “loving it more as the years go by,” he says. “When I’m not working here, I’m loafing here.” Abe lives only a few blocks away, but his fellow volunteers come from afar to rake, mulch, and clean: from Queens, from lower Manhattan, from New Jersey. Thanks to the Conservancy, Central Park is more beautiful and beloved than ever, with landmarks like Bethesda Fountain and Belvedere Castle helping attract more than 30 million visitors a year.

The Conservancy counts its success in dollars as well as foot traffic. The “Central Park Effect”—the Conservancy’s estimate of the market value that the park adds to nearby residential and commercial property—is more than $17 billion, leading to $535 million per year in additional property taxes for the city. The Conservancy reckons that the exercise opportunities that the park provides are good for some $40 million in health-care savings annually. And the city government receives over $10 million in concession and permit fees from park businesses each year.

From around the world, visitors flock to Blonsky’s office to learn how the Conservancy’s public/private partnership model can help them restore their own parks. Meg Cheever is president of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, founded in 1996 by citizens concerned by the Steel City’s deteriorating green spaces. So far, her group has raised $40 million and completed nine capital projects. “It was great for those of us in other cities to have a model,” she says. “We could say, ‘Hey, they brought Central Park back. If they could do it there, then we can do it in our town, too.’ ”

Conrad Kiechel is a writer and park lover in New York.

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