Saturday, August 13, 2011

Night Of Protests At Museum Park Funding Forum

On Tuesday night the Museum of the City of New York presented Whose Park Is It? Financing and Administering New York's New Parks.
The night was not without its drama.
A.R.I.S.T. president Robert Lederman - pictured (above) holding up a sign in front of the stage - was asked repeatedly to leave. He was arrested later in the evening. Several groups came out to protest Parks Department policies. (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)

Not amused by the delays. “I guess in the 1970’s, there was a civility of discourse,” Commissioner Benepe said when the panel resumed.

The Museum was strongly criticized for its panel composition which included only people with extensive relationships/affiliations with the city. The panel included Mr. Benepe, Catherine Nagel, Executive Director of the City Parks Alliance, a Washington DC based non-profit whose board members include Doug Blonsky, Central Park Conservancy, Liam Kavanagh - NYC Parks Dept, Tupper Thomas formerly of Prospect Park Alliance, Drew Becher, former Exec Dir of the NY Restoration Peoject and Bloomberg's Partner in "Million Trees Initiative; Alyson Beha, (pictured above) Director of Research, Planning & Programs for New Yorkers for Parks, a partner organization with the city.

The panel was moderated by Alexander Garvin, managing director for NYC2012, New York City’s committee for the 2012 Olympic bid; the director of planning design and development of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). He also has a long-time affiliation with the Trust For Public Land, an organization currently involved in a more than $ 100 million dollar partnership with Bloomberg through its "Schoolyard to Playground."


By Johanna Clearfield

On Tuesday, the Museum of the City of New York hosted a lively—if somewhat agitated (just see this video of artist Robert Lederman getting arrested)—forum on our public parks, whimsically entitled, "Whose Park Is It?"

A more apt banner for the event might have been, "Which Park Is It?" because it was clear—after three hours of fairly robust and declarative oration by the panel —that a basic definition, purpose and function for our public parks does not exist.

Unless that basic definition, purpose and function involved concessions and for-profit industry as well as lucrative high-end housing developments.

A Time's Up volunteer held up a banner as guests arrived for the event. There is an active campaign to ban cars from Central Park. Close to a dozen Staten Islanders showed up in white tee-shirts to protest the Parks Department's handling of the Benjamin Soto Skate Park in Midland Beach.

Historically, we know that parks have served many functions. In Democracy 101, we learned the importance of public space where "freedom of speech" is protected. We know also that the "public spaces" of any mall or green space in or around private developments is not public and so does not protect our right to assemble on the "public square"—the nexus of democratic exchange, expression and, well, free speech.

Case in point: When the Republican convention came to NYC back in 2004, it was the Central Park Conservancy—not the City of New York—that forbid a public gathering of protest. This is where the public-private partnerships in formerly public spaces becomes problematic.

The panel was moderated by Alexander Garvin, the former MD for NYC2012 Olympic bid and director of planning and design for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The panel included Catherine Nagel, the execuctive director of City Parks Alliance; NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe; and Alyson Beha, Director of Research, Planning & Programs for New Yorkers for Parks, a partner organization with the city. They seemed strangely unaware of the multitude of purposes, functions of "parks."

But there are many. There are parks we gather to hear music, some where we even get to play our own, there are parks for making out, parks for bringing kids and concrete slabs with patches of dying grass or one of the million trees planted by the Mayor. Those are the places for sitting down to quickly check i-phone mails and then hurry off. There are parks that host children in uniforms throwing balls, catching them and such. There was no discussion or acknowledgement of these critical distinctions. Take, for example, Penn Plaza vs. Prospect Park. Huge differences. It might have been beneficial if the NYC Audubon had been represented to chime in about their "Natural Areas Initiative" to discuss the importance of many of our city's parks in relationship to migratory birds and other non-commercial functions of "parks."

While, the panel repeatedly re-iterated the party line that the Parks need "significant investment beyond what municipal budgets can provide" and "new federal policy," the Daily News reports quite the contrary.

A recent article explained how the city handed over $30 Million Dollars in annual revenue to New York City Parks. In addition, millions of dollars are handed out to private developers in "density bonuses," allowing them to build more units than would otherwise be allowed according to zoning restrictions if they include public space.

And the Parks Department has been reportedly pushing the agenda of "public-private partnerships" in order to "open the door to the commercialization of what was once pristine parkland."

In addressing the issue of lax park maintenance and cost-cutting on basic repair and service in the parks, Benepe responded by praising volunteerism.

He said, “The true heroes of our parks are the volunteers!” And added, “The reality is that other than perhaps a dozen parks there aren’t going to be that many that have significant amounts of private funding. With this exception, the role [of park maintenance] is played by volunteers. These are advocates in the best sense who come out and clean who do clean up and open and close the park. And you say the government should do that. Well, the government should do all sorts of things!”

So while we may think that this forum on public parks was about public parks, in fact it was much more ominous.

“The government should do a lot of things!” is one of the most radical, incendiary and arrogant dismissals of what is our right: a democratic society. To the basic health and human services that our government is obliged and duty-bound to deliver.

As Geoffrey Croft, of NYC Park Advocates, so aptly noted, “It is the city’s legal responsibility to maintain its park system which they are clearly not doing. The city continues to try and abdicate its responsibilities by entering in these agreements which the elected officials are allowing. Besides the enormous disparity these deals create, they also hand over an enormous power and decision and policy to these groups with little transparency and accountability on what is supposed to be public land.”

Yes, Mr. Parks Commissioner, the government should maintain and protect our public parks. And the government should—and does—do all sorts of things. That is one of the things it is obligated to do.

The “social contract” drawn up by the founding fathers that explicitly states in “the right of redress” that if certain fundamental human needs are not met by the government, the people have the right of redress and can cede from that society.

Google it, I’m sure “social contract” will come up with thousands of hits—all interesting, and enlightening. Hopefully.

For most of the mentions where the panel spoke of "re-imagining our parks," it seemed clear they were envisioning Bryant Park in replication all across the globe. Well-tended for-profit enterprises, green spaces providing vendors selling everything from slushies to upscale shrimp-on-a-stick as tourists and “foot traffic” trudge through carefully landscaped pathways watching movies or enjoying ear-splitting music.

In the three hours this panel discussed, "parks," there was never one mention, not even an implication, nary a nod to "habitat." This disconnect between a park-for-park's-sake and a park that "gets to work" (Nagel) is what made this evening's discussion so difficult to endure.

Prospect Park's is currently undertaking a restoration project to restore the marshlands and construct a two ice skating rink entertainment-a-looza, while basic services like garbage collection and park enforcement police are horribly neglected.

This panel seemed focused and intent, as Nagel re-iterated time and again, to "make the parks get to work for us.”

And become more of the fabric of the city we live in, not separate from it. I will repeat that. Parks need to be thought of as part of the city, not separate from it. Why? Nagel's re-imagination included no area that was set apart. No wild place. No wildlife. A no-place.

The leadership of the Prospect Park Alliance and other Public-Private park administrators seem caught between restoring the pristine past and falling into the black hole of market capitalism, concessions, for-profit-mania promoted by The City Parks Alliance and friends.

To see what's really going on in Prospect Park, click here for a virtual tour. Stunning wildlife, gorgeous wooded areas and garbage and more garbage and unrestricted fishing and more garbage. A paradise lost. Many people in the community strongly feel that the $74 million going to the ice skating rink would be better spent dealing with maintaining and caring for the park as it is, rather than heralding in another huge garbage-attracting mega-complex.

While New York is blessed to be surrounded by so many precious pockets of sanctuaries of natural beauty that we somehow have held on to—especially parks like Prospect Park and Jamaica Bay—that exist, tenuously it appears, merely to exist.

People "of means" overwhelmingly value the experience of nature but they do not rely on the public sector to supply it. There are planes to far away hide-outs and weekends in the Berkshires. Unfortunately, one in five families in NYC are living at or below the poverty level and so this rare experience of nature is only available through preserving our parks. Turning all of them into huge concession stands can only be seen as environmental class-ism.

We, as a community, as a culture, as a society, need to experience nature. We need to see wild birds fly free and animals forage, no leashes and no cages. That sort of park experience can border on the transcendent. It teaches us about ourselves, our place on earth, the universe. Walden's Pond, anyone? But, judging from the panel's expressions when I was called on to ask a question and I mentioned my concern for the repeated injuries to our parks' wild birds as the result of illegal and irresponsible fishing and very little to no park enforcement, no response was given. Benepe angrily prodded me with, "Well, what is your question?"

My question was very clear: how can Prospect Park say there is no money to provide basic services like garbage clean up and park enforcement to protect our wildlife when they are building a $74 million dollar duo ice skating rink lakeside complex? There was no answer given. The moderator moved on to another.

Geoffrey Croft, of the New York City Park Advocates, thanked everyone for participating (that's fair) and welcomed the museum to follow-up with another vent that might include some of the morecontroversial issues in the debate.

Hopefully the next forum will cover topics like the rapidly vanishing "public sphere" —those places where we have a constitutional right to gather, to protest, to sing out, to exist—and how these public-private partnerships may quietly, profitably, steal away our life and liberties. Given the diminishing public space available and the woefully deteriorating venues for "assembly," the issue of public-private partnerships in public space is far more daunting than even the $30 million dollars a year rightfully belonging to the park but retracted.

Catherine Nagel closed the evening with her announcement about the City Parks Alliance upcoming 3-Day International Parks Conference: "Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities" to be held next summer in NYC. If this upcoming event is any reflection of the panel discussion , we can kiss our parks goodbye and wave a big hello to even more epic concessions, high-rise luxury apartments, gated communities and re-imagine parks in terms of "economic growth, public-private partnerships with sustainable development, that changes the landscape of cities across the nation and around the world." E.g. parks adjacent to luxury developments adjacent to shopping/entertainment districts and public parks that do not in any way, shape or form, resemble parks.

I strongly urge you to attend the conference and be willing, ready and able to speak out against this re-imagination. Increasingly our public spaces are being taken over by private interests or city orstate officials who turn a deaf ear to our concerns. I was grateful to the Museum of New York for giving all of us—even the fellow carted off to jail—a chance to speak. and hope to be heard.

Don’t let them pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Read More:

Which Park Is It, Anyway?
ParkSlopePatch - August 12, 2011 - By Johanna Clearfield

The Villager - August 11, 2011 - By Albert Amateau

No comments:

Post a Comment