|Brad W. Taylor in Morningside Park where two bluestone staircases are in need of repair|
(Benjamin Norman of the NY Times)
Last year, Central Park received what is believed to be the largest gift ever given to an American park, $100 million, from the hedge fund manager John A. Paulson
When Frederick J. Kress, who sits on the board of the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy, heard about it, he had only one thought: What about us?
Flushing Meadows-Corona, which has been the setting for two World’s Fairs, is considerably larger than Central Park, at 1,225 acres, compared with 843. Last year, its conservancy attracted $5,000 in donations.
The park’s bicycle and walking paths are cracked and pitted, Mr. Kress said, and its natural areas are overgrown with invasive species. “Central Park is doing pretty well,” said Mr. Kress, who is also president of the Queens Coalition for Parks and Green Spaces, noting that though Mr. Paulson’s home on Fifth Avenue overlooks Central Park, he grew up in Queens. “I’m not saying he owes anyone anything, but how about you give Central Park $98 million and Flushing Meadows-Corona $2 million? That two million would have gone so much further in an underappreciated park.”
Mr. Paulson’s gift was only one of a number of large donations to the city’s parks: $20 million was given to the High Line in late 2011, an additional $10 million to Central Park this month, and $40 million was pledged to build a field house in Brooklyn Bridge Park, though the plan was abandoned. The gifts have put New York’s green spaces on a par with hospitals, universities and cultural institutions as objects of philanthropy.
The largess has delighted city officials, who say it will ensure that New York’s signature parks have the resources to remain pristine while accommodating millions of visitors a year. But the donations have also highlighted the disparity between parks in Manhattan’s high-rent districts and those, like Flushing Meadows-Corona or Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, that are in less affluent communities. In those parks, conservancies and friends groups must struggle to raise any money at all.
Christina Taylor is the executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, a nonprofit group devoted to the fourth-largest park in the city. Van Cortlandt, with 1,146 acres, is surrounded by middle- and working-class neighborhoods. A $1 million plan by Ms. Taylor’s group to overhaul the park’s trail system is about 20 percent complete but will soon come to a halt for lack of funds.
“It is frustrating, and it’s hard not to think, ‘Them again?’ ” she said, referring to Central Park. “We work very hard to do what we do. If we get a $50,000 grant, we’re jumping for joy.”
Friends of Morningside Park, a nonprofit group that solicits volunteers and donations for the Harlem park, does not begrudge Central Park its windfall. For one thing, the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that operates the park for the city, regularly dispatches its maintenance crews to nearby Morningside and a dozen other city parks, in its own act of altruism.
Brad W. Taylor, president of Friends of Morningside Park, has even seen a slight increase in contributions since the fall, when Mr. Paulson’s gift was announced. “Giving to parks has become a cool thing now,” Mr. Taylor said.
His worst fear, he said, is that the infusion of philanthropic dollars will result in less public financing for all parks. “That’s just a recipe for disaster,” he said, “especially in parks that cannot raise that kind of money.” The group has a wish list of modest capital projects that the city has yet to tackle, notably two bluestone staircases that are “falling apart,” as he put it, each requiring $1 million worth of work.
The big gifts have arrived as the total expense budget for parks, which includes maintenance, has fallen to $338 million, from $367 million in 2008. Nonetheless, under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, $3.9 billion has been invested in new and refurbished parks through the capital budget, and 750 acres of new parkland have been created.
Veronica M. White, the city’s parks commissioner, said the department was committed to financing the entire park system. She defended the sizable gifts, pointing out that Friends of the High Line, under its management agreement with the city, was responsible for that park’s maintenance. The Central Park Conservancy, at the same time, covers 85 percent of the annual operating budget for Central Park, through donations from residents, corporations and foundations.
In addition, both parks draw residents from across the city, and tourists from around the world. “To keep Central Park and the High Line at the level they are with only city money just would not happen,” Ms. White said.
Still, she said, the city was not going to make friends groups pay for routine maintenance. “Where we have trusts and alliances, the goal is not to shift costs,” Ms. White said. “Parks are paid for by the tax base, and they should be.”
The unequal distribution of philanthropy is not particularly surprising, said Linda R. Cox, the parks department’s Bronx River administrator, who also directs the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit group. After all, most major philanthropists tend to live near a few parks in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, she said.
“We can’t kid ourselves that some parks and some projects aren’t going to come to the notice of really wealthy donors more easily than others,” she said. “That’s something that as a city we are going to need to reckon with over time.”
While praising the recent generosity toward parks, Holly M. Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said she hoped that the city could devise ways to somehow share the wealth.
“Even though it’s great that there are individual gifts to individual parks, it’s a park system,” Ms. Leicht said. “That lends itself to having a broad-based fund or thinking creatively about funding.”
Mr. Taylor, of the Morningside Park organization, said the largest gift that the friends group had received in its 32 years was $10,000; a typical year yields about $50,000, which goes toward routine maintenance of the steeply sloping, 30-acre park.
But for many of the city’s parks, raising even $50,000 can seem an impossible dream.
Friends of Wingate Park, in Brooklyn, for example, recently won a grant from the Partnership for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the parks department, to help pay for materials to recruit volunteers and foster group identity. The amount: $800.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 18, 2013, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: In Era of Big Gifts, Overlooked Parks Groups Ask: What About Us?.