Park conservancies arose mainly because public funding to maintain parks had diminished, and there was also an idea that it would allow members of the community to more actively support their own parks.
The first New York park conservancy was the one in Central Park, created in 1980, and set up as a private nonprofit that managed the park under a contract with NYC. The conservancy effectively oversees the work of both the private and public employees under the authority of the publicly appointed Central Park administrator, who reported to the park’s commissioner and the conservancy’s president.
The park and the conservancy are often engaged in joint ventures like the restoration of Belvedere Castle and raising money for work on the surrounding landscape. The conservancy had raised nearly $1 billion from corporations, individuals and foundations since its founding, and the entire park has been transformed by its efforts. One can view its success by sitting on the restored benches, admiring the tens of thousands of varied bulbs and shrubs planted each year, or viewing the meticulously cared for and reseeded lush lawns, refurbished and often striking buildings and sports facilities, and the park’s dredged and rebuilt lakes and ponds. The conservancy achieved turning Central Park into a radiant public sanctuary and a model for urban parks nationwide.
Some of the conservancies that followed in NYC were linked to the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Madison Square Park and Prospect Park, as well as to my own local park, the Washington Square Park Conservancy, founded in 2013.
Meanwhile, in Washington Square Park …
There is no one model for a conservancy, but the Washington Square one has much less power than Central Park’s.
Still, it has to ensure that the public that uses the public space can maximize its enjoyment. But the rules of the park are enforced not by the conservancy but by the New York Police Department and the Parks Department. So when we sit in the park and are besieged by aimless, loud noise, buskers, dealers, bike riders and homeless beggars, it’s the city not the conservancy that is responsible for controlling behavior and muting the anarchic impulses of some of the public. Smoking, skateboarding, bathing in the fountain and amplified sound without an NYPD permit are prohibited, but the rules are often broken and rarely enforced.
Of course, Washington Square Park faces more daunting obstacles in creating a controlled environment than Central Park. It’s miniscule — 9.75acres compared to Central Park’s 840 — so activities are concentrated rather than spread about. Many rules may be broken in Central Park, but hidden from public view.
Washington Square Park also carries the history of a place where political protestors, radicals and bohemians gathered — a setting where all sorts of behavior were permitted. But though protests still take place there, it’s not radicals or bohemians that define the park’s ethos. The park today consists of a melange of constituencies and individuals: NYU students; young professionals; dog owners; musicians; seniors like myself who sit, read and have conversations there (especially during these COVID years); mothers and nannies with babies and toddlers; narcissistic skateboarders; drug dealers; homeless people; and petty criminals. It’s a park that can be exhilarating and alienating at the same time — and usually is.
An insider perspective
To learn more about the conservancy, I spoke to Grace Harman, its community relations director. Harman mentioned that the conservancy’s staff is small, though volunteers augment it. Given that the parks get cut first in the city budget, the conservancy has done very well helping maintain the flowers, other plantings and lawns of the park. A decade ago, when WSPC was first founded, the only gardening staff was a district gardener who split his or her time between WSP and the other small parks in the Village. As a result, it was hard to keep up with the weeding, but now with more staff (two full-time gardeners, a supplemental contractual crew and a group of weekly volunteers), the park has thrived as a green space. The conservancy in conjunction with Greenwich House also sponsors a number of activities like dances, drawing/painting classes and tai chi, among other events.
However, the conservancy is not responsible for taking care of the homeless, who are a significant group in the park. According to Harman, that’s the responsibility of NYC’s social services, and she is not for pushing them out, feeling that the homeless have a right like any other New Yorkers to be there. She also believes that there is no realistic way of making the park a totally peaceful oasis, noise and music being integral parts of its character.
On that note, the park’s conservancy has been accused of having too “cozy a relationship” with the Parks Department, which has been seen as “too obliging” to the conservancy members’ complaints and requests.
To be honest, as a park user I have wanted the conservancy to play more of a role in the running of a park that can be anarchic and even threatening at times. I also know it can be dangerous to give a private institution that is dominated by wealthy donors oversight over public space, though, and I recognize that a park as small and intensely used as Washington Square finds it hard to achieve a balance between the idea of a park that serves as a place for contemplation and one geared to often noisy activity. It’s that balance that at least older users of the park want, but I recognize that it’s in the hands of the Parks Department and the NYPD to help realize that, not the conservancy.
The conservancy may not have the money or power to turn the park into an urban idyll, but it works hard at helping meet the park’s shifting needs. In Harman’s words, “it does the best it can.”