Former Parks Commissioner Recalls Highs, Lows and Secrets of Central Park

Adrian Benepe |
Encore: September 20, 2012

Former NYC Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe shared highlights of his career, the history of Central Park, and some of its secrets in his interview with MetroFocus. He currently works for the Trust for Public Land, a national preservation group.

Editor: Andrew Blauner
Contributors: Paul Auster, Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Buford, Susan Cheever, Ben Dolnick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Adam Gopnik, Brooks Hansen, Mark Helprin, David Michaelis, Francine Prose, Nathaniel Rich, John Burnham Schwartz, Susan Sheehan, Colson Whitehead, Alec Wilkinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: Apr. 2012

Adrian Benepe, the former NYC  Parks and Recreation Commissioner from 2002 to June 2012, wrote an introduction to the “Central Park: An Anthology,” a collection of essays edited by Andrew Blauner about the crown jewel of New York City’s parks. Below is an excerpt in which Benepe shares highlights from his 30-plus year career working in city parks.

On Oct. 3, Benepe will appear at a public event about writers’ odes to Central Park alongside Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger and former mayor Ed Koch at 92Y Tribeca. Tickets are available here.

I recently had the opportunity to record an oral history of New York City’s parks for a high-tech start-up. The software wizards there created a Web-based map of the world and asked people near and far — comedians, bartenders, professors, city servants — to talk about their pieces of the world. Mine involves approximately five thousand pieces of property under the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, our parks, playgrounds, beaches, recreation facilities, meadows and woodlands covering more than twenty-nine thousand acres, about 14 percent of the city.

Yet I found myself telling not one, not two, but three tales of Central Park. The first described a few of the Park’s quirky characters, the second discussed the amazing temporary art installation known as The Gates, and the third covered the great statues and movements featured along Literary Walk and throughout the Park’s great expanse.

When I was in college, I had a summer job, perhaps my most interesting summer job, as a pushcart vendor in Central Park. It was an enormous pushcart that belonged to the Front Porch restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan. This was in the summer of 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial celebration, the tall ships, and fireworks, when disco was ascendant and “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway. It was a summer when NYC was mostly grimy and decrepit, with stifling subway cars covered in graffiti, but there were signs that all was not lost. It was also a summer when a girl I had just met at Middlebury College came to visit from her home in California, and Charlotte Glasser fell in love with New York, and would later marry me in Central Park.

Every day, I would get my cart and fill it up with tureens of cold soup and interesting fruit breads and push it — all six hundred pounds of it — from West Eighty-Second Street to Fifty-Ninth Street. I sold food at lunchtime at the south end of the park, and then, after lunch, I pushed the cart to the Delacorte Theater, outside of which I sold food at dinnertime. Though the cart lacked a Parks permit and the restaurant did not inform me that I needed one, no one enforced the rules at the time. There was a passel of other vendors selling creative food, and a few classic hot dog/pretzel guys who likely had real permits. Every once in a while a police officer would show up and shoo us away, but we would come back and sell our soup, falafel, or tacos. (The charismatic guy who sold falafel would shout out to prospective customers, “Falafel — Will Not Make You Feel… Awful!”) We banded together and enjoyed friendly competition, except for the two hot dog guys, who once had a fight that ended with one stabbing the other in his arm with a large hot dog fork. During this time, I came to know a lot of the people who seem slightly unreal to me now.

Top: Before its restoration in 1983, Belvedere Castle in Central Park was covered with graffiti and was in disrepair like many attractions in Central Park. Bottom: The castle as it appears today. Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

When we refer to the “bad old days” of Central Park, we are usually talking about the days of rampant crime, graffiti, abandoned buildings, bare lawns, and dead trees. And yet I miss some aspects of those old days. In particular, Central Park was home to a lot of “characters” who added to the atmosphere, but who, for the most part, are not there anymore.

One of the characters I met, the Poet O, trundled around Central Park with a shopping cart. He had a bushy white beard and he would ring a handbell. If you gave him money, he thanked you by reciting a poem that he composed on the spot, a sort of blank verse. He made promises to cure paying listeners of sexual diseases by ringing his bell. I talked with him often, and once he realized that I didn’t have the means to pay him for his wisdom, he dispensed it for free. Among other things, he explained to me the value of Central Park as a large, outdoor sanitorium. He said he was mentally ill, and the park enabled him to get out of his single room in a West Side hotel and be out in nature — not elbow to elbow with people — where he could experience what he called “the natural medication of nature.” The park, he explained, was saving the government huge amounts of money by allowing mentally ill people to “self- medicate” through the intoxicants of the romantic landscape and avoid expensive mental hospitals and drugs.

Another character, a flamboyant man with a pompadour, toured the park on an elaborate bicycle, pulling a tricycle with a red wagon behind it. A series of enormous tropical birds, cockatoos and parrots, rode on the tricycle and wagon behind him as he circled the park, allowing people to admire his birds. Perhaps the best known was Adam Purple, with his long flowing white beard and purple, tie- dyed clothes, who traveled the park on his purple bicycle picking up horse manure to compost in his garden on the Lower East Side. For a while, a woman in purple, whom he called Eve, accompanied him.

Photos of Central Park's Great Lawn prior to restoration in 1997 (top) and after (below). Benepe said that if you played football on the Great Lawn when it was neglected you'd get cut from all the rocks and sand. Photo courtesy Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

A hippie named “Mountain,” who had long, dirty-blond hair, played Frisbee every day by the Naumburg Bandshell. The Bandshell was where the other hippie kids hung out. Mountain, not one of the rich kids from Central Park West or Fifth Avenue, was lean and muscular and had the air of a Westie from Hell’s Kitchen. He knew how to throw a Frisbee better than anyone else and served as a kind of Peter Pan leader of the Lost Boys (and girls) of that generation. But Frisbee wasn’t his only talent. Mountain could commune with anyone, and he had to, because the area was habituated not only by middle- and upper- class teenagers, but also by a group of drug dealers who counted on the kids as customers. Soon enough, a new group would overtake the area — roller disco skaters in colorful outfits dancing to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” and then, in another summer, Chic singing “Le Freak” as dozens of skaters and hundreds of onlookers of all races and nationalities and sexual persuasions grooved and mingled and proved why New York City was the capital of where people just got along.

These were some of the Central Park characters. Today, they are not nearly as numerous. The Central Park Conservancy and New York City have invested six hundred million dollars in private and public funds to restore the glory of the nineteenth-century landscape in a way that suits twenty-first-century users. Ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen in linen suits strolling along the paths have given way to both genders running and cycling in Lycra tops and bottoms that their predecessors would have seen as underwear. Or perhaps you simply cannot see the characters now that almost forty million visitors enter the park each year. I suppose it is better that the park is busier than ever rather than abandoned, which it essentially was back in the seventies. Maybe now you just have to look a little closer to find the characters.

For sixteen days in February 2005, Central Park was transformed by the now-famous art installation known as The Gates. Centuries of great sculptors are featured along Literary Walk and throughout the park’s broad expanse, and The Gates, like a powerful orange highlighter, drew the attention of millions of New Yorkers for a blissful and brief rapprochement with the unexpected and the great.

In February 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 five-meter-high "gates" in Central Park for two weeks. The duo had proposed the park-wide project in 1979 but were not granted permission until Mayor Bloomberg's first term in office, when Adrian Benepe was parks commissioner. The total cost of the project, over $21 million, was paid for entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In an interview with MetroFocus, Benepe called the installation "a transformative experience." Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

The NYC park system has a very large temporary art program. The Parks Department works with groups like the Public Art Fund and Creative Time and also with independent artists to temporarily install contemporary works in parks across the city, notably on Park Avenue and at Grand Army Plaza and in City Hall Park, among many other places. I became deeply involved in perhaps the greatest and briefest exhibit, The Gates, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in the early 2000s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought the project would have merit both as a work of art and as a tourist draw, so he and Deputy Mayor Patti Harris instructed me to ensure the park’s safety first, but ultimately to try make the idea a reality.

The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month.

Over the previous twenty-five years, we had repeatedly informed Christo and Jeanne-Claude why we could not allow them to do the project. In its initial version, the plan called for fifteen thousand gates, with footings deep in the lawns, rocks, and woodlands of the park, and an autumn installation date. With so much potential damage to the park at stake, and scheduled as it originally was at a time of high visitation (and bird migration), as well as staunch opposition from preservationists and community residents, their project seemed undoable. In fact, Park Commissioners Gordon Davis and Henry Stern both formally turned it down, in Davis’s case with an elaborately argued booklet of more than one hundred pages.

Now it was my job to try to find a way to make it work, and Central Park Administrator Doug Blonsky and I, along with a very diplomatic assistant parks commissioner named Jack Linn, had the task of figuring out how to work with the artists so they could realize their extremely personal vision while doing no damage to the park’s landscape nor unduly disturbing the resident wildlife and park visitors. The artists had to figure out a way — and they did very cleverly with their engineer, Vince Davenport — to construct The Gates without digging holes in the park. Among the many ingenious aspects of their design was the use of hollow, extruded vinyl tubing to be used for the gates themselves, an idea based on similar technology used for fencing horse paddocks. The design used heavy weights to which lightweight gates were bolted to the asphalt paths. Christo and Jeanne-Claude also reduced the number of gates by half and installed the exhibit in February, during the park’s icy season, when visitation is normally extremely low and no bird migration takes place. The artists, along with Vince and his wife, Jonita, organized an army of paid technicians and volunteers to install the gates, and the entire process, including countless technical meetings, public review presentations, press conferences, and walks through the park, were part of the work of art. By the project’s conclusion, the park remained completely unharmed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands with artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the first day of "The Gates" installation in Central Park on Feb. 12, 2005. Photo courtesy of NYC.GOV/Edward Reed.

On February 12, 2005, Mayor Bloomberg and the artists unfurled one of the saffron-colored curtains that hung, the crowds streamed through, and like a very long line of dominoes, the other gates were unfurled by volunteers. The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month. It was a transformative experience for me. I had gone from being the guy who had to deliver the bad news as to why the show could not go on in the nineties, to being the one who helped make it happen. The Gates made me, and millions of visitors, look anew at Central Park, because the rows of orange gates formed lines across the landscape, undulating with the terrain, sweeping up and down hills, and swooping along lake edges and roadways, as if a giant hand had traced the contours of the park with an orange highlighter. For the first and perhaps only time, the complexity of this work of art, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s, was dissected and revealed in a way it had never been before,brilliant but evanescent. People thronged into the park and packed nearby hotels, shops, and restaurants; it was even rumored that the Starbucks near Columbus Circle ran out of cups. Tourism hit record numbers, and the city saw a positive economic impact estimated at almost $250 million. Like the three days of peace and love at Woodstock in 1969, the two weeks of unbridled joy in New York City in 2005 touched even the most cynical of the city’s residents. Perhaps most important, New Yorkers felt a very tangible sense that they could recover from the terrible devastation of the World Trade Center attacks. The Gates was not just the single greatest art installation the city has ever enjoyed; it was a reaffirmation of the enduring vitality of New York City and cities in general.

In the seventies, Central Park was a municipal embarrassment and a symbol of a city going down the tubes in a hurry. Graffiti obscured everything in sight, including the abandoned, once-historic buildings, festooned with extraordinary ornamentation, designed by eminent architects of the previous century. Vandals broke off pieces of stone carvings on the Bethesda Terrace. The fountains were empty and full of scrawl. The rowboats were covered with graffiti. There was no grass on the lawns, and the park lacked horticulture. The poorest of people made overnight homes in the burned-out buildings. Crime soared, from rampant drug dealing to hundreds of muggings and even murders. That was Central Park, the city’s premier park; one can imagine what the rest of the park system looked like.

These were the parks I knew as a teenager, in the summer of 1973 when I first worked for the Parks Department on the Lower East Side, cleaning toilets and locker rooms at the Dry Dock Pool on East Tenth Street and then picking up garbage and sweeping up huge piles of beer cans in the East River Park. I learned firsthand that a combination of reduced funding, low morale, and poor work attitudes can drive even a once proud park system to its lowest level. It was also the Central Park I first encountered when I graduated from Middlebury College and came back to New York City in the early spring of 1979.

In 1979, Adrian Benepe, center, joined the Urban Park Rangers, a program that hired young people to become ambassadors to showcase the transformation of city parks. Photo courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation.

Through a series of happy accidents, I made my way to the Parks Department, meeting Betsy Barlow, the newly appointed Central Park administrator, while working as an unpaid intern at a community newspaper. I learned about Commissioner Gordon Davis’s wonderful idea to start a program called the “Urban Park Rangers.” The Rangers would bring a corps of fresh-faced, mostly young and idealistic parks “ambassadors” to the public and show in a tangible way that the park system was undergoing a rebirth under Mayor Ed Koch. From May 1979 to September 1980 I served as an Urban Park Ranger. On one of my first patrols, walking through the Ramble, I stopped to talk to a middle-aged man, who said,”You know, I’ve lived in New York all my life, and the city really got lost when we abandoned the parks to the vandals and the hooligans.” He told me, “When we gave away the parks to the bad guys, that was the end of the city.” And I think he said, or he may simply have implied that “we will take back the city, and the city will become livable again, when the parks feel safe and decent again.”

It was very hard to feel hopeful about the future at that time. I would look at tinted postcards and black-and-white photos of old Central Park with perfect green lawns and flowers and fences and intact buildings and monuments and no graffiti and say, “Look at the terrible things that have happened. Can it ever be nice again?”

Soon, the city, and its parks, did indeed begin to become “nice again.” The Central Park Conservancy was formed under the leadership of Betsy Barlow, who was named park administrator by Mayor Koch and Commissioner Davis. The city restored the Sheep Meadow, and the Dairy was reopened as a visitor center. Then came the magnificent restorations of the Belvedere Castle in Central Park and the Boat house in Prospect Park. Each time a restoration occurred, the city sent a message. It was like winning a war against decrepitude and vandalism and all the bad things that had happened. With some minor bumps along the way, the work started by Davis and Koch and continued under Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and their respective parks commissioners, Betsy Gotbaum and Henry Stern, paved the way for Mayor Bloomberg to lead the largest expansion and improvement of the park system since the halcyon days of the WPA and Robert Moses.

The NYC Parks Department, among many other things, oversees most of the city’s collection of statues and monuments; certainly everything that is in a park. Statues and monuments in a city are traditions that go back to the ancient days of Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The primary purpose of civic sculptures and monuments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to honor heroes or ideals. Parks have memorials to all of the wars; to generals, soldiers, presidents, and other leaders. There are bronze statues and generals on horse back (unfortunately, all men). More recent additions to New York City Parks include statues of Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, and Harriet Tubman, as well as those representing a diversity of backgrounds — Mahatma Gandhi and Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglass, among others.

Some of the very best sculptors lived and practiced here in New York City. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a man many consider the best sculptor of the nineteenth century, and certainly the best American sculptor ever and a true genius, was born and raised on East Twenty-second Street.

Before becoming a successful sculptor, he served as a cameo cutter and then an apprentice. He eventually relocated to Cornish, New Hampshire, and founded the Cornish Colony, where all the artists and writers and sculptors and painters — including John Singer Sargent — went and lived. He created some of the great sculptures of American history, including the one of Admiral David Farragut that stands in Madison Square Park, the seated figure of Peter Cooper that sits in a small triangle behind the Cooper Union, and perhaps most famously, the gilded statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman being led by the allegorical figure of Victory, which stands at Grand Army Plaza at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.

Today, Central Park is home to many statues and monuments, but very few have been added since the mid-twentieth century, when a trio of South American heroes went up along Central Park South. People now have come to understand that Central Park itself is, as the Central Park Conservancy historian and photographer Sara Cedar Miller stated,”the most important work of American art of the nineteenth century.” Even more remarkably, it is a work of art that has managed to survive and evolve, look better than ever, and serve more visitors than ever, over 150 years after it was conceived and created. And it was considered perfect then.

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions. It is a long distance, in a Proustian way, from the characters of Central Park I met then. But it underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishment of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes an ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

© Bloomsbury USA. Excerpt published with permission.

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