Manhattan's Crown Jewel-Keepers A Look at the Central Park Conservancy

One hundred and fifty years ago, the New York State Legislature passed a bill designating land in the heart of Manhattan as a great central park. Today, the 843 acres that was saved from being swallowed up by developers is now treasured public landscape used as a respite from the feverish pace of the metropolis by over 25 million visitors and residents each year.

The Park of the Past

Many European cities have had public green spaces for centuries; the concept really didn't take root in New York until the mid-1800's, when the population of the city began to explode, thanks to rising birth rates and the huge influx of immigrants from around the world. By 1853, New Yorkers needed a respite from the crowded, dirty streets, bleak row houses, and grimy alleyways that characterized their city. Ironically enough, it was wealthy industrialists and landowners who initially proposed the establishment of a public park that would in time become the one truly egalitarian space in the city, where the poor and rich alike would gather to enjoy some greenery and get a break from the pace of their lives.

In 1857, the Central Park Commission selected Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's so-called "Greensward Plan" as the original blueprint for Central Park. Since it settled into its current 843 acres of rolling, pastoral space, Central Park has faced an uphill battle; fending off developers who would whittle the park away to take advantage of what would be hugely valuable real estate, vandals and criminals who used the park's lush foliage as a cover for wrongdoing, and just the everyday wear and tear that millions of tromping feet, bike tires, baby carriages, rollerblades, and pet paws inflict on the park's paths and open spaces.

Park Preservers

Caring for this immense national historic treasure is the responsibility of the Central Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1980 by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. The Conservancy manages Central Park under a contract with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Through the support of individuals, corporations, foundations, and volunteers, the Conservancy has raised nearly $300 million since its founding, and has rescued and restored Central Park's landscapes from the deterioration that set in during the city's 1970's fiscal crisis.

In addition to aerating and seeding lawns, raking leaves, planting shrubs, maintaining ball fields and playgrounds, and protecting over 150 acres of lakes and streams from pollution and algae, the Conservancy has spent nearly $70 million to restore and revitalize park landscapes. Some recent projects include the restoration of the Great Lawn, creation of the Naturalists' Walk, the rebuilding of the 79th Street Maintenance Yard, and the construction of a public plaza at Merchant's Gate - the park's entrance at Columbus Circle.

According to Doug Blonsky, chief operating officer of the Central Park Conservancy, there are approximately 55 members of the Board of Directors, led by chairman Ian Smith, who is also chairman and CEO of Marsh and McLennan Companies, a Fortune 500 investment management concern. In addition, there are 250 privately funded employees that do everything from raising money to caring for every shrub and tree in the park. The Conservancy also reaches out to many volunteers and seeks corporate donations to help maintain the park.

Residents living around the park also do their part. The Women's Committee, which spearheads numerous fundraising efforts, has established a Perimeter Association, which provides funding for the improvement and maintenance of the park's landscape along the six-mile perimeter from the walls to the street curb. Over 150 residential buildings, hotels and clubs surrounding the park support the program with contributions ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. The association even assigns a full-time maintenance crew to each day clean the perimeter - picking up trash, removing fallen branches and any other debris that collects on the sidewalks. Crews also repair and repaint benches and lampposts and remove snow in winter.

Outreach and Accolades

In addition to making the park a visual work of art, the Conservancy provides educational programs focusing on environmental science and Central Park history, recreation programs for youths, and hundreds of free public programs throughout the year.

The Conversancy has been widely recognized for its work, receiving prestigious awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects for design excellence in the reconstruction of the Great Lawn, and the Philip Winslow Landscape Design award for the reconstruction of the Merchants' Gate Plaza entrance. In 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Central Park Conservancy a National Preservation Honor Award. In a press release from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust said, "The restoration of Central Park may be one of the nation's most complex preservation projects ever. The Central Park Conservancy has rightly earned its reputation as one of the nation's foremost park conservancies. Through an innovative public-private partnership and an unprecedented level of public involvement, the park has once again become the jewel of Manhattan."

Happy Birthday to You!

This year, the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation are celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary celebration of this jeweled urban landscape. The year-long celebration offers events for all ages and interests from classical and jazz concerts to sports events, a film festival, a lightshow extravaganza, and more.

Doug Blonsky, chief operating officer of the Conservatory, recently spoke to The Cooperator about his organization, its past successes, and its future.

How would you explain the Central Park Conservancy to someone who has never heard of it?

"The Conservancy is a very unique not-for-profit organization that manages Central Park for the City of New York. Central Park is clearly the backyard of all New Yorkers, and without the conservancy, it would be nowhere near as beautiful and magnificent as it is today. It's a very unique public/private partnership that we have with the City. The Conservancy raises private funds to maintain, manage, and rebuild parts of Central Park."

Where does the money come from?

"Since 1980, the Conservancy has raised $300 million from private donations for capital improvements and maintenance. The Conservancy is responsible for raising 85 percent of its operating capital. Donations come from the public that lives around the park. Fortunately, corporations and foundations, and individual donors all love Central Park and value its importance to New Yorkers. They are all very generous."

"We raise the money by doing direct mail [and] fundraising events [and] really cultivating our individual donors. Our base is still going to individual donors that live adjacent to the park; they are still the most important fundraising group."

"Our model for success was our second campaign, "The Wonder of New York" a capital campaign started in 1992." [Editor's note: According to the Conservancy, this campaign resulted in the Conservancy's single largest restoration in the Park's history - the rebuilding of the Great Lawn. This two year, $18.2 million project turned 55 acres of what was called the "Dust Bowl" into a lush green lawn with state-of-the-art playing fields for various sports.]

"Founding trustee Richard Gilder gave the Conservatory $17 million, but he said the Conservatory should match it and then the city should kick in $17 million, so it was a challenge grant. We raised $17 million from the city and another $20 million on top of that. That kind of campaign was so successful that after the 150th celebration, we need to look at doing something like that to get everybody energized; possibly for the endowment. We still have a lot of capital projects to do, and we need more in the mode of maintenance and operations and management."

Getting individuals and corporations to donate can become difficult and repetitive. How do you keep the fundraising aspect fresh?

"This year is a good example. Central Park is a success story - so instead of going to the corporations through the Foundation side, we are going through the marketing and sponsorship side. People want to be associated with a success story, so we've gotten people to jump on board that side. Very fortunately, MasterCard is using us in price list ads - they see the value of partnering with us. It's a good result for the park."

What are today's current goals of the Conservatory?

"Since we've restored upwards of 75 percent of the park since 1980, now it's time to protect the park for the future - so it doesn't go back to the point of disrepair that it was in during the late 1970's. Our operating budget is $20 million. With the 150th anniversary, it's really to celebrate that Central Park is a great democratic experiment spawned in 1853, and it's still there and it's working. It's to get New Yorkers to understand that in order for us to have the park here 150 years from now - as beautiful as it is - they need to get involved and help support the park. People think the city maintains it. Even though the city is a partner, it's important for people to realize it's a private entity and they can help to support the park."

Since September 11th, many not-for-profits have been hit hard and donations were on the decline. Did 9/11 affect you and how are you recovering now?

"Yes, 9/11 has affected us in several areas. Our foundation support is soft. Foundations are based on endowments, which are down throughout; corporation donations were hit hard, and individual donations are down too. But thanks to the 150th anniversary of the park, we gathered a lot of support through sponsorship. MasterCard is the overall sponsor. With the 150th anniversary, we're having some wonderful events and individual sponsors are taking on those events as well. I think a lot of that will continue as we continue making a lot of new friends and cultivating and continuing those relationships."

What about funds for additional Park security?

"Central Park has it's own police precinct, and that lies with the New York City police department. After 9/11, the public who lived around Central Park flocked to it and used it as a respite. Tourism fell off after 9/11, but the public came back though. The citizens really came back and used it for families to get away from it all."

How do you handle the negative image that Central Park is not a safe place to visit?

"There is somewhat of a perception about Central Park because if a crime happens it's on the front page of the paper, but crime is at an all-time low in the park. I've been with the Conservatory for 18 years, and there is no question that probably up to the mid "˜90s people felt that way. I've noticed that there is a total change now when people come to Central Park. They know it's a magnificent, beautiful place and they want to see it and be in awe of it. There is good use happening in the park now and when you create good, the bad goes away."

What obstacles does the Conservatory face in the future?

"There are always the challenges of running a park; we have 25 million visits a year. It's an incredible amount of use. But people have to understand that Central Park is an extremely sensitive man-made landscape. They can't abuse it, but use it appropriately and properly. The park is a sensitive landscape and it has to be managed."

To find out how to contribute to the Central Park Conservancy, to find out about events going on in the park, or to see schedules of special 150th anniversary happenings, visit www.centralparknyc.org, or www.centralpark.org for more information.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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