My Backyard

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With so many citizens using the park (250,000 on a nice weekend, 25 million over the course of a year), it has always needed a lot of maintenance. But when control was transferred to the city’s Department of Parks (which has its headquarters in the park), politics began to work its insidious way, and Central Park began to get short shrift in allocations from the city budget.

Maintenance does not have much political sex appeal, for the simple reason that keeping the lawns mowed and the benches painted doesn’t get anyone on television or the front page. As the city’s budget woes deepened in the mid-twentieth century, the maintenance was relentlessly cut back, while the “anything goes” attitude of the late 1960s allowed people to behave in ways that would never have been tolerated earlier. One sociologist even argued that vandalism was simply another way of using the park.

The owners of the immensely valuable real estate that surrounds the park became more and more alarmed as what had been their properties’ prime asset began to slide toward being a liability. Several advocacy groups banded together and began to lobby for change in how the park was controlled. In 1980 they founded the Central Park Conservancy and got the administration of Mayor Ed Koch to agree to its taking over control and maintenance of the park, under contract with the city. Meanwhile, the city greatly increased the police presence in the park to rid it of graffiti artists and muggers.

For the most part privately funded by members and contributions from adjoining property owners, the Conservancy was able to greatly increase the park’s budget. Today it provides 85 percent of Central Park’s $23 million budget. It has also raised $300 million for capital projects and an endowment fund of $90 million. In 2004 unpaid volunteers contributed no less than 32,000 man-hours to keeping the park clean and beautiful.

And what a difference 25 years makes. The once-derelict buildings, such as the Dairy (now the visitor center) were restored, as were many of the rustic shelters where people can sit and admire the view. Bethesda Fountain, the very heart of the park, was restored, and the angel once more dips her toe into its falling waters. The Sheep Meadow, 15 acres of greensward, and the Great Lawn are once more healthy, green, and protected from overuse. With three years of effort, the graffiti was scrubbed away and has been kept away ever since.

It is all an object lesson in what can be achieved by thinking creatively about handling public responsibilities. Bureaucrats and politicians are inevitably hedged in both by legal restrictions (they have, for instance, only two funding sources, borrowing and the taxpayer) and by their own divergent self-interests. Placing responsibility for the park with an organization that has no other responsibility and can raise money from people who have a direct self-interest in the park has made Vaux and Olmsted’s masterpiece once more the pride and joy of New Yorkers.