Central Park Populist—Land&People

Erana Stennett was at first reluctant to accept the job offer from the Central Park Conservancy. Born and raised in Manhattan, Stennett worked for the New York City controller until the Conservancy approached her in 1989 to develop its community relations program. The park was then marred by crime and vandalism, yet plans by the nonprofit Conservancy to revive the park were meeting strong public opposition. “I felt at the time that I really wanted to do something significant–working on child welfare, or substance abuse, or homelessness, or transportation planning,” recalls Stennett. “Then I realized that Central Park is a microcosm of the city. All public policy issues affect the park in one way or another.” Today Stennett is the Conservancy’s vice president for government and community relations.

Founded in 1980 to raise private money for restoring Central Park, the Conservancy currently is charged with day-to-day management of the park, under a unique 1998 contract with the city. Through private donations from more than 23,000 individual members, foundations, and corporations, the Conservancy provides 85 percent of the park’s $16.7 annual operating budget, funds capital improvements, maintains the grounds and facilities, and offers programs for volunteers and the park’s 20 million annual visitors (an increase of 5 million over recent years). The Central Park Conservancy has its detractors. Critics say the philanthropy is more concerned about the park than those who use it. Hearing them out and finding a balance for the many and sometimes competing interests in America’s best-known and most-used city park is what Erana Stennett’s job is all about. We spoke in the Conservancy’s office, a former orphanage on Fifth Avenue, just across from Central Park.

Can you give us a brief history of Central Park leading up to the creation of the Conservancy?
In the early nineteenth century the city lay south of the rural, swampy site that would eventually become Central Park. This particular tract–from 59th Street to 106th Street and subsequently to 110th Street–was considered because of its size–843 acres–and location in the center of Manhattan. Public officials, landowners, and business leaders expected the city would proceed north, making this site a prime location for the city’s first municipal park. Up to that time, there wasn’t a municipal park in the city.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were selected through a competition to design Central Park, in part because their plan–the Greensward Plan–sank the roads, which allowed for horse-drawn carriages–and later cars–to move below the park with pedestrians walking above. The Greensward Plan combined natural pastoral landscapes with woodlands, expansive meadows, gardens, and lakes. Later, in the Robert Moses era [Moses was New York City Parks Commissioner from 1933 to 1959], parks became used for more active recreation. Ballfields, tennis courts, playgrounds, boathouses, and skating rinks were built.

When the Conservancy was founded in 1980, Central Park had deteriorated. Landscapes, the infrastructure–lighting, benches, buildings–virtually all the public amenities were in disrepair. There also had been some highly publicized incidents of crime in the park. In fact, things were in such bad shape that Senator Daniel Moynihan threatened to turn the park over to the National Park Service. That sense of urgency helped motivate a number of New Yorkers to save Central Park. One of them, Elizabeth Barlow-Rogers, was an active volunteer in the park who became the founding member and first president of the Central Park Conservancy. She and other prominent New Yorkers introduced the concept of bringing private philanthropy to a public park.

Was that something that the city welcomed?
The city welcomed the private support because officials knew it would bring much-needed resources to Central Park, while the city would retain authority. The public, however, particularly some civic groups in Manhattan, questioned whether this was a sound precedent. Many New Yorkers feel strongly that it is the city’s obligation to provide and maintain parks and open space to its citizens, not the private sector’s. Some were concerned that donors would have undue influence over the park. It took the Conservancy and the city quite a long time to convince the public that while their concerns were reasonable, that wasn’t going to happen here. And I think the city was very vigilant about making sure it wasn’t going to happen. Educating the public about this new partnership fell largely to the Conservancy.

How did you respond to these concerns?
The Conservancy established the first office of community relations for Central Park. As director, one of the first things I did was create a community advisory board to advise the Conservancy’s Board of Trustees on the capital rebuilding plan and other matters affecting the public. Today we actually have about half a dozen advisory groups that guide us on everything from managing our woodlands to improving safety on the park drives to issues affecting dogs and their owners.

How did the Conservancy approach restoration work in the park?
The Conservancy developed a master plan for the entire park that analyzed use, circulation, infrastructure, topography, and soil conditions, and recommended specific methods to rebuild the park. The first projects were chosen: Sheep Meadow at the southern end, Bethesda Terrace in the middle of the park, and Conservatory Gardens, located in the north end of the park. We started at the Bethesda Fountain, which is at the heart of the park on 72nd Street and is pro- bably the park’s most recognized feature. I think restoring the fountain was a symbol for what the Conservancy was capable of doing parkwide. The fountain was inoperable for a long time, it was graffiti-marred, and the arcade was dark and seedy. When the entire area was restored, it felt to many New Yorkers that anything was possible.

What remains to be done?
Our woodlands–the North Woods and the Ramble–, a number of bridges and arches, East Meadow on 100th Street and Fifth Avenue–all have yet to be restored. But I think the biggest challenge now is managing what we’ve restored. You know, there’s no down time here. It’s not like Yankee Stadium, where after the season ends you close it up and everyone goes away until the next season. We get over 20 million visits a year, year round. At least half a dozen different constituent groups regularly visit a restored landscape in Central Park. And the park is not going to get any bigger. In prior years, we faced a cycle of restoration, degradation, and restoration. Today the challenge is, how do we, in partnership with the city of New York, protect the $250 million already invested to reclaim and restore Central Park?

What are some of the techniques you’ve come up with?
One example is the zone gardener approach to managing restored areas. We’ve divided the park into 49 zones and dedicated a zone gardener to each. In addition to their maintenance responsibilities, zone gardeners have become our ambassadors in the field. They’re important in terms of public safety. People just feel more comfortable when there’s a uniformed presence in the park–it doesn’t necessarily have to be a police officer. Visitors to the park begin to establish relationships with their zone gardener, and over time they develop a greater appreciation for what that person does. They see the gardeners working their hearts out, trying to keep those lawns green and clean. Consequently, park users may become more conscientious in how they use and care for the park. The gardeners are our front-line people in educating the public. That’s so important because most people using the park today have no frame of reference for a restored and managed Central Park. The park was deteriorated for so many years, people assumed it didn’t matter what they did there.

How do you make people more aware of the need to care for the park?
It’s a real challenge to educate people about stewardship. I think when Americans travel they tend to be more respectful of historic parks and public spaces, such as Versailles or the Tuilleries in France, or Hyde Park in England, than they are here in the United States. I am not sure people realize that Central Park is a historic landmark just as valuable as Hyde Park is to London, just as significant to this country as the Tuilleries is to France. We want people to have fun in Central Park, but we also want them to recognize that the park is a historic natural resource. As stewards of the park, we risk being accused of creating a “grass museum,” which people have said. So we invest time and resources in community outreach and education to get the message across. For example, the next exhibit at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center [one of the park’s four visitor centers] is about wildlife in Central Park. It’s designed to get visitors to look beyond the park as a place for recreation, and understand its importance to wildlife and to the environment. We want visitors to be aware of the 200 bird species that migrate here each year. That it’s not okay for mountain bikers to go careening through our woodlands.

You’re also using focus groups?
Yes. An example is at Cedar Hill, a landscape on Fifth Avenue near 79th Street that was completely restored. But little community outreach took place before, during, or after the project, and a year after it reopened, it was ruined. Cedar Hill attracts a lot of different uses. In the morning, the dog owners are there. Then they leave, and the schoolchildren come out to play. When they leave, the sunbathers and picnickers come out, particularly during the summer months. And then the dog owners come back at dusk. So we sat down with the users and said, “How can we work together so that everyone can continue to enjoy the hill, while allowing our zone gardeners to take care of this landscape effectively?” Out of these focus groups came the red flag system. Red flags are posted on the hill after a heavy rain, when it snows, or when we’re reseeding. There is a sign that explains, “Red flag means landscape is vulnerable, do not use today,” and a brochure that explains the impact of foot traffic when lawns are wet, as well as phone numbers if people have questions.

Is it working?
Nothing comes easy in New York, so it took a while. I went out there one day and found a dog digging up the landscape while the owner just stood there, and I said, “Excuse me, sir.” And he just went nuts. There’s a sense of entitlement because it’s a public park. But yes, ultimately, people got it. Now we use the red flag system on the Great Lawn and at North Meadow, too. And we’re very proud that we figured out a way to work with park users to resolve an issue rather than imposing what we thought was the best solution. We continue to reach out to residents who live around the park perimeter and to representatives from neighboring institutions who might be interested in a proposed project.

Doesn’t this take a lot of time?
Some people will say it takes too much time. But I’m a community advocate at heart. I’m here for the community just as much as for the Conservancy and Central Park. I feel wholeheartedly that when you involve constituents in the planning and design process early on, projects are generally better. Sometimes constituents will ask for outlandish things, but for the most part, their requests are reasonable. I am convinced that if you don’t put the time and resources into a meaningful public process up front, you may put it in at the end–in court. New York is a very litigious city.

How does the Conservancy try to impart a sense of stewardship to park users?
To me, stewardship is about partnership–partnering with the public to protect this magnificent place. How we communicate that varies. Our volunteers hand out 30,000 trash bags at the Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera concerts held in the park. I see every contact with a member of the public as an opportunity to impart key messages.

What is your most gratifying project?
The project closest to my heart is the Harlem Meer, which runs from about 106th Street to 110th Street along Fifth Avenue and west to Malcolm X Boulevard. This was one of the most dramatic transformations because it’s such a large landscape–11 acres–and such a dominant part of the northern end of the park, and so much of it had deteriorated. The meer was degraded, there was no water, no wildlife left. People had dumped shopping carts, tires, and debris in it. All the lighting fixtures and benches surrounding the meer were broken. The boathouse was vandalized and set afire; there was graffiti everywhere.

We spent almost four years rehabilitating that landscape, beginning in 1990. We worked very closely with youth leaders, the religious and business communities, and with teachers, parents, and youngsters. One day we took a group of teen moms to the playgrounds in Central Park to help inspire and guide them in working with us to redesign a toddler playground at the Harlem Meer. We wanted these teen parents to be involved in the entire planning process. Until then, no one had ever asked them what kind of play space they wanted for their children. Working with Conservancy landscape architects was a whole new experience for them. On the day the playground reopened, the mothers turned out to cut the ribbon and were thrilled to see all the features they had asked for. People were very moved. It meant a lot to them. And not long after that, developers started taking an interest in the communities adjacent to the Harlem Meer–today there are two new developments right here on Fifth Avenue. Ten years ago, no one would have invested a dime in residential real estate on Fifth Avenue north of 100th Street. I think the Conservancy can take some credit for the renewed interest, for making the first major investment in a community that people had mostly written off.

How has programming played a role?
Programming is an opportunity to promote stewardship and to stay in touch with communities around the park. We introduced a fishing program at the Harlem Meer, for example. Youngsters coming to the Dana Center are given a fishing pole, bait, and instructions. Do you think these youngsters throw empty Pepsi bottles or debris in the meer? No, because that’s where they fish every summer. Youngsters take pride and ownership in the area. They value the meer because it is part of their lives, and the lives of their families and friends. I don’t think there’s any way to hold onto parks and playgrounds in densely populated urban settings without a strong stewardship component. On weekends we offer workshops for families. We discourage parents from just leaving their kids at the Dana Center and going off. We want them to sit down at the table, even if it’s only for an hour and a half, and spend quality time with their child doing something really fun.

What lessons does the Conservancy offer other cities?
The Conservancy is preparing a best-practices manual on our public review process to educate other conservancies and “friends” groups in how we have successfully worked with communities to advance restoration projects here in Central Park. I think one of our legacies will be the concept of public-private partnership–I believe wholeheartedly that the private sector benefits from public space across the county, and can and should contribute to its preservation. The public–both government and the people–are integral to the longevity and vitality of public spaces in America. Together we can transform and revitalize our communities.

Land & People, Fall, 2000

Susan Ives is TPL’s vice president for public affairs and is editor of Land & People.

For more information about Central Park and the Central Park Conservancy, visit www.centralparknyc.org.