Dec 6, 201311:28 AMPoint of View

Who Really Benefits From Central Park?

Who Really Benefits From Central Park?

Courtesy Flickr User Matthew Knott

A strange paradox confronts New York City. Economic statistics indicate that Manhattan has levels of economic exclusion comparable to South Africa. Yet the city retains world-class common spaces that improve overall quality of life while sustaining pedestrian diversity. Who benefits the most from non-excludable zones? The answer is complicated. A perusal of my own Upper East Side neighborhood, which is near to Central Park, demonstrates the tension between public accessibility and latter-day segregation.

The Upper East Side feels straight from the new urbanist playbook, even if it more or less prefigured it. Pedestrians can seamlessly navigate a rational order of gridded streets as we could in few other American cities, with all the virtues that flow from enlightened planning. Sharp edges and straight lines convey an orderly repetition along the way, maximizing commercial efficiency. My own block comfortably houses more than 1,600 people in relatively close confines alongside an array of businesses. Deliberately boring buildings give life to daily routine without any unnecessary disruptions.

The sidewalk tableau confidently renders the city’s place at the top of the cosmopolitan order of things. Workers file into the shops, restaurants, and grocers providing the myriad forms of labor that animate this part of the city. They speak many of the 800 languages thought to exist in New York. Yet the illusion of inclusivity melts into separatism by bedtime. Granular data provided by the CUNY Center for Urban Research show that permanent residents on my block are more than 80 percent white, comparable to a cross-section of Wichita, Kansas (about 72 percent white). This is not much different from the rest of the Upper East Side.

Segregation driven by overarching economic forces can be taken as a given in market society, provoking far less outrage than actual physical barriers might, but it is real nonetheless. From the East 77th Street subway stop that serves as the gateway to the district, workers enter a census tract with a median household income of $168,000. (Note: see the New Yorker's helpful infographic about wealth inequality and New York's subway lines.) Residents of the outer boroughs and beyond make this community desirable, but few can partake fully in the environment they’re working to cultivate.

Central Park is the focal point of the district, and a study in accessibility. Each day it ushers thousands of relieved pedestrians out of the staid grid and into a brilliantly illogical world of odd statues and meandering forests. This crown jewel of urban design brings a level of elegance to daily life unmatched by most of the privatized no-go zones in gated suburbia, and is for the most part open to all. While inner cities inflict palpable restrictions on vagrancy and political action, they can’t easily enclose whole streets, sidewalks or parks the way suburbs can. Nor would they typically want to, because common spaces generate economic activity.

One57 will become the tallest residential skyscraper in the Western hemisphere, featuring aerial views of Central Park while casting a long shadow over it. 

Courtesy Joshua K. Leon

Central Park’s principle designer Frederick Law Olmsted boasted that his magnum opus served to increase citywide real estate values, augmenting many a private fortune. In fact properties adjacent to the park appreciated by 1,000 percent in just five years after its construction. To this day the park creates ever increasing wealth for a few well positioned property owners. The rest of us can only gaze at the $90 million park view penthouses changing hands on 57th Street’s so-called billionaires’ row.

Not coincidentally Central Park has been well maintained during the profit-driven Bloomberg years. This greatly benefits casual users of the park alongside the landed interests whose investment portfolios are intimately tied to the park’s allure. The Central Park Conservancy, increasingly cash flush in recent years, has become an instructive model of privatized space management in contemporary New York. Its stewardship was a harbinger of ample financial backing during years of public sector divestiture in parks.

On the other hand unelected philanthropists now influence decisions over public spaces according to shrewd corporate logic. The “dust bowl” that was Central Park in the 70s underwent robust renovation, leaving poorer parks behind as public budgets ebbed. Meanwhile unpaid volunteers fill the breach in Central Park’s labor force. This comes as many New Yorkers yearn for something called a salary.

The third world allusion used above only goes so far. For example New York has 26.4 square meters of open space per person compared with 1.1 square meters in Mumbai. How we manage this urban ecosystem is one factor in the inequality equation.

Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College, where he teaches a course about urban ecologies. His has written on cities for Dissent, Metropolis, Brooklyn Rail, Next City, and Cities, among other publications. His forthcoming book is called "The Rise of Global Health" (SUNY Press)

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Dec 6, 2013 01:13 pm
 Posted by  dlibner

You’re wrong in stating that the Conservancy’s 33-year commitment to Central Park has been at the expense of other parks. Besides maintaining Central Park 24 hours a day, the Conservancy also fundraises 75% of the Park’s annual expense budget; this year, the Conservancy will raise more than $43 million toward the Park’s $58 million budget. That’s $43 million that the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation – and New York City taxpayers – will not have to provide. As you can see, the Conservancy allows public dollars to be free to go to other parks throughout the five boroughs.

The state of Central Park fundamentally supports the state of New York City. Every year, a well-maintained Central Park generates $1 billion in revenue for New York City, and is visited more than 40 million times by people looking for space to freely relax, socialize, and be active. More than 70% of those visits are made by people from all of NYC's five boroughs.

Rather than a “harbinger of ample financial backing” of non-profit stewardship of public spaces, the Conservancy's birth heralded a new sort of activism: the public taking responsibility for neglected public spaces, for the benefit of all New Yorkers. In the beginning, the Conservancy made incredible strides in improving the quality of the Park with few resources, very little funding, and a lot of passion; New Yorkers began to support our mission once we proved our ability to breathe new life into Central Park.

The public’s participation – whether by donation of their money or their time – in caring for the Park is an element of any cultural or non-profit institution that is far from atypical. We’re proud of the approximately 1,000 New Yorkers who volunteer their time to helping visitors explore the Park or our horticulture experts in maintaining gardens. We’re exceptionally proud of the 300 Conservancy staff members who care for one of the most iconic and accessible urban parks in the world.

Dena Libner
Central Park Conservancy

Dec 6, 2013 04:50 pm
 Posted by  raphaelsperry

As a comment on Ms. Libner’s language, the “public” is probably better represented by New York City government than by the contributors of the Central Park Conservancy. She should be aware that most cultural and non-profit institutions are supported largely by a privileged elite who are, in circular fashion, the primary beneficiaries of their own largesse. This is in contrast, for instance, to a Western European model where support of cultural institutions is largely provided by government (which is not a perfect system, but which represents a choice other democracies that value the arts and culture could also make).
Relying on the generosity of the elite for access to the arts, culture, recreation, and green space is a complicated bargain for non-wealthy citizens. It reduces their say in the management of what are presented as public resources, and can result in the access to these spaces during critical times – the recent book from ADPSR’s New Village Press “Beyond Zucotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space” carries reflections on this theme by a variety of authors. Or consider the all-too-familiar spectacle of university presidents afraid to take a position that might offend wealthy alumni. Even in the example offered, the money available to parks in outer boroughs is contingent on continued willingness of wealthy patrons to donate for Central Park; if residents think the current split between Central Park and all other parks in inequitable, they have little way to redress it.
I think the idea that private support for Central Park is related to property values around the park is right on the money. If the support was just because wealthy people wanted to support public open space, they wouldn’t have much trouble with additional tax revenue for Rec & Park, but they’re not pushing that, are they?

Dec 9, 2013 01:52 pm
 Posted by  joshleon

The Central Park Conservancy brought welcome resources to the park, and was instrumental in the park’s revival. Still, Dena Libner (who, readers should know, is the CPC’s public relations manager) has to admit there are problems here. Last year one solitary hedge fund manager—whose own residence is steps from the park—singlehandedly donated $100 million to the Conservancy. Not a dime of which went directly to the city’s many underfunded parks. Nor is the city making up the difference, as Libner hopes to see, having gradually divested in the park system over the years rather than increased funding.

I do not claim that the Conservancy itself was the reason for this divestment, but its rise has certainly coincided with the emergence of an unequal system, where the parks with the wealthiest neighbors receive the most abundant financing. While, yes, people from all over the city enjoy the park, it’s a stretch to imply that an amply funded Central Park enriches every community. It is ill consolation to tell people in non-wealthy communities, where parks can often be found in disrepair, that there is a much nicer park for them to visit halfway across town.

Meanwhile the number of full time employees in the city’s park system decreased over the years. Interns, volunteers, and even welfare-to-work recipients provide labor for little or no pay. We all benefit from their work, but this is another sign of the times. Right now large numbers of New Yorkers ply the city—or stand outside in protest—in hopes of accessing living wages while employers take end runs around minimum wage laws. I agree with Sperry that a replenished public sector could address some of these problems.

Beyond that, I share Libner’s affinity for Central Park, and thank Sperry for his welcome insights.

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