Last week Mayor Eric Adams released a preliminary $109 billion budget for the new fiscal year. He framed it as a good news story: He announced he was able to soften some cuts he had proposed in November as the city’s financial outlook brightened due to stronger than expected tax revenues.
Adams froze police hiring and slashed school funding in November, budget cuts he was able to reverse this month. Libraries were forced to close on Sundays; now they will be spared from closing many branches on Saturdays.
So, pretty good news, right? Not if you’re one of the city’s 34 nonprofit Cultural Institutions Group — the so-called CIGs. In Brooklyn these include the Brooklyn Museum, BAM, Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and more. In November, the mayor slashed in funding to the city’s department of cultural affairs to the tune of $9.3 million. Instead of rolling back those cuts, Adams doubled down. The mayor cut cultural affairs spending again on last week, shaving another $11.6 million from the agency’s preliminary 2024 fiscal year budget — and proposed a $5.4 million reduction for 2025.
Leaders of these CIGs — including from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall — sent a letter to Mayor Adams urging him to reconsider.
“I would propose that the entire cut they’re giving to cultural affairs would equal a week of police overtime,” says Adrian Benepe, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, on this week’s episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” “It’s nothing. And yet it’s having a disproportionately harmful impact.
Benepe, who also serves as the Brooklyn Vice Chair of the Cultural Institutions Group, discusses what the Adams administration cuts mean to an organization like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the other CIGs. We talk about his tenure at the garden, which he’s led since 2020 and how that’s been going. Benepe also served as the parks commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2002 to 2012. We talk about that. We discuss his upbringing, his iconoclastic father and we talk about his dealings with a certain Donald Trump.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
On January 16, the mayor proposed $109 billion budget that he framed as less dire than expected. The city’s cultural organizations, however, have not been spared. In November, Adams slashed funding to the Department of Cultural Affairs, the DCLA, by $9.3 million, which directly affects cultural groups including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Adams slashed spending again last week, shaving another $11.6 million last week from the agency’s 2024 fiscal year budget. Is that all accurate and what does that mean for you?
It is. It’s, near as we can tell, worse than we’ve ever been cut before. What differentiates us from other museums in New York City, say the Guggenheim or Museum of Modern Art, is this is a historic partnership between the city and these cultural institutions. That involves two main things. One is the buildings and the land are owned by the city. So for example, we sit on New York City park land. The city owns the buildings. The nonprofit organizations that run these places, however, own the collections. The other thing that differentiates them besides being on city-owned land and managing city-owned assets is they get direct city funding, both expense budget funding and capital funding. What we’re talking about here is cuts to the expense budget. And what is really a rounding error on a rounding error in the city’s budget, you’re talking about maybe $20 million overall in $109 billion budget.
The Department of Cultural Affairs budget is only 0.2 percent of the city’s budget.
Yes, it’s roughly $240 million. Parks department has [more than] double that and they’re 0.6 percent of the budget. What is pennies to the overall city budget, not even pennies, is massive to us. And this is really all the institutions. It’s both the big ones like the Metropolitan Museum of Art Museum, Natural History Lincoln Center, but small ones like Weeksville and Snug Harbor Agricultural Centers, Flushing Town Hall. These are some organizations with budgets of a million or two, and the city portion is a substantial part of that.
And the really difficult part — and I’m not sure the city appreciates this — is we have boards, we have budgets, and we have to make a budget stick to it. So last year our budget was, say, $27 million. We knew where the money was going to come from and we ran a tiny little surplus. This year we have a $5 million swing into a deficit position because of three primary factors, two of which are directly in the city’s control.
One is inflation. All of us have faced 20 percent inflation say over the last five years. That’s everybody. What happened last year was that the city, after many years of not having a collective bargaining agreement with its union members, entered into a new bargaining agreement, which gave everybody a 16 percent raise.
The thing that most people don’t know is most of the cultural institutions have significant union workforces. This is a third part of this three-wheeled contraption that is this partnership: There was an agreement to have the majority of the operating staff be union members — members of DC 37, the same union that houses the parks department, gardeners and crossing guards, and all the different people that make up the 300,000 city employees. There were 7,000 union members who were part of the museums. To take that locally, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 70 percent of our workforce is union: gardeners, security guards, some educators, maintainers, custodians. These are union jobs and the city pays for a portion of their salaries, but we pick up the rest by raising private dollars.
The thing that differentiates cultural institutions from every other city funded service is we are a partially city funded service. And that can range from say, 10 percent of the very big places to as much as 50 percent of the smaller ones where the other percentage comes from privately raised money.
So for most institutions, we’re raising $3 or $4 in private donations to match every dollar in city funding. So when they cut us in the city funding, they’re cutting our ability to match that funding. There’s a perception that we can just go out and shake the trees and shake money out of rich people as if we’re not already doing that. We’re already getting all the money. We can’t just say, “Just ask your rich friends for more.” It doesn’t work that way, particularly when we’re already halfway through our budget year. We’re halfway through a year where they’re cutting our budget. And I’ll tell you that as bad as the picture you painted is, it’s actually worse for us.
The garden specifically?
For the garden and for some of the so-called larger cultural institutions. We understand it’s their intention to cut us 11 percent, not 5 percent of this round, so that they can only cut the smaller institutions only 4 percent.
To be clear, they announced a round of cuts in November and then a new round last week.
In November, it wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been. It ended up being a 3.5 percent cut. Most recently, when many agencies were spared like they spared the police department, the fire department, the sanitation department, they restored the Parks Opportunity Program for the parks department. They said no more cuts to libraries in this most recent round, the January round announced this week.
No more cuts to libraries, but they are still closed on Sundays because of the previous cuts.
There was going to be another day they would’ve to cut. They had gotten more cuts. So they “held them harmless.” We were not held harmless. In fact, if it is as we hear it is that we’re getting another 11 percent, we’re already at 15 percent and the year isn’t over. There could be another round of cuts in April. There’s an April budget plan. So we are staring down the barrel at a million dollar cut just this year alone in the operating year, which has already been budgeted. We’ve already budgeted for a deficit. We may need to budget midyear for larger deficit, and that means that everything goes on the table.
I was trawling through Nonprofit Explorer just to get a sense of your financial picture, and I saw that in 2022 the garden saw revenue of $27.136 million and expenses of $27.058 million. Super slim margin, but it’s in the black. And this is after big losses from 2018 to 2020. What do you attribute that turnaround to and where do you see this year landing as?
The big hit on all of us, and we had somewhat less bad than the others, was Covid. So 2020, we were closed for four-and-a-half months. That meant no admissions revenue, no events revenue, no weddings. There was a point in 2020 when we were looking at $10 million deficit on a $25 million budget. Through a lot of hard work, through a lot of sacrifice, through employees voluntarily agreeing to four-day work week that is taking a 20 percent salary cut, we were able to get through that year without laying anybody off. Many cultural institutions laid off. Thousands of people were laid off or furloughed by other institutions.
Even before Covid, in ’18 and ’19, you guys were in the red though.
It kind of goes back and forth, but generally a balanced budget. We have a pretty conservative board. We always manage to somehow have a balanced budget. So in ’22 and ’23, we had strong recovery years. Membership came back up to what it should be, admissions, revenue events. So we ran surpluses in both years. Don’t forget the federal stimulus money, very important. The federal stimulus money saved a lot of our collective behinds. And then we suppressed salaries. Nobody got a raise. We did a lot of sacrificing and of course people gave up 20 percent of their salary in Covid year. But we had two strong years. Last year was a strong year. We ended up with a good size surplus.
Does the popularity of programs like “Lightscape” play a role?
It did with the first year. We didn’t budget any income for the first year because we didn’t know how it would go. We ended up with a surprise million-and-a-half dollar net. The second year we lost a couple hundred thousand dollars. So there’s no guarantee. This third year we’re still counting, but it looks like we’ll have a modest financial return.
When we do have a surplus though, it doesn’t just sit like growing interest. It has to go someplace. So in our case, much of it was headed for a building fund. We have lots and lots and lots of major repairs waiting to be done, and we were anticipating putting the surplus from this year into a building fund. However, we now have budgeted for at least a $2.2 million deficit. Whatever surplus we have left might be part of the solution for this year where we put it into a cash reserve.
We’re fortunate we may be able to skate through this year if there’s no further cuts because we were budgeting for 15 percent cut. We’ve already gotten that 15 percent cut. If it goes any further, we haven’t budgeted for that. All of us institutions are looking at some very hard choices. Already I’ve heard that some institutions are furloughing staff, they’re reducing hours, they’re reducing educational programs.
So we’re being put in a lot of hard choices and in the cultural institutional leaders, we’re kind of tearing our hair out because we’re being, in a way, punitively penalized for these because it’s much worse than the cost of giving to major city agencies that gobble up enormous parts of the budget. I would propose that the entire cut they’re giving to cultural affairs would equal a week of police overtime. It’s nothing. And yet it’s having a disproportionately harmful impact. And it’s not just the direct jobs that we control that we may lose. It’s all the indirect jobs. It’s the restaurants nearby, it’s the tourism industry, it’s the hotels. If we’re closing an extra day a week, maybe people don’t go. Maybe they don’t go to the neighborhood. So there’s a very bad negative economic impact. If you’re cutting a cultural dollar, it’s like cutting $3.
The mayor was spinning this as a good news story in that he was able to reverse a small portion of the cuts to the education budget that would’ve slashed money to high schools, restored funding to police — he loves his police department — fire, sanitation departments because of this better than anticipated tax revenue. So he’s saying, “Well, it’s better than it otherwise would’ve been or could have been.” What would you do if you were mayor?
I did run a city agency for a while. I would not make it so stark and black and white. I would say surely there’s room somewhere in the gigantic police budget to trim a little bit without affecting basic privacy and safety. I would not have a bunch of agencies that gobble up a giant percentage of the city budget, the sacred cows that don’t get cut at all. And then you’re inflicting maximum cuts on the organizations and agencies that have the least powerful, that have the least ability to counter the cuts. And it’s easy to say, “Go ahead and ask your wealthy donors for more money,” but they’re pretty much tapped out. And we do a lot of miraculous things here at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and we grow a lot of things. The one thing that doesn’t grow here, is money on trees.
[Laughs.] You’ve been sitting on that one, I bet. You’ve been president there since September of 2020. That’s peak pandemic. What was the mandate when they brought you in? What were you tasked with?
They had done a miraculous job before I came in. The previous president, Scott, had left and there were two acting co-directors. They were acting during Covid, so they had to figure this all out with the board, what do you do. The biggest, most important thing they did was figure out how not to lay anybody else [off]. Everybody agreed to take that 20 percent pay cut. And meanwhile, the senior leaders, they didn’t work four days, they worked six days, but they got 80 percent of their pay. So there’s a lot of sacrifice.
I came into a situation where much of the hard work had been done. And then because there was federal stimulus money, because there was a challenge grant from a donor, we were able to close a $10 million deficit to $1.2 million deficit by the end of the year, which was miraculous. And the board said to us, “Given these desperate times, you can tap into money and the endowment to meet operating needs,” which is normally a no-no. So they authorized us to take up to $6 million out of the endowment to meet operating needs. We ended up tapping it to 1.2 million of that. But the next year we had a great year and we paid it back. So we ended up actually not taking anything out of the endowment in the long run.
So a lot of sacrifice and creative leadership was done. And frankly, people were desperate to come back out. One of the first things you could do, even during a heavy Covid year like 2020, people finally understood that being outdoors was safe and healthy, that you need to go outdoors, that the virus did not transmit readily in the open air and the wind and the breeze and so on. So we had an immediate return of members and visitors even in that sort of scary time, and that helped us a lot.
I went during that scary time. I believe you partnered with a poet-artist named Gelsey Bell who does these audio tours that you can download and I took the audio tour of the garden. It was a snowy day. It was a wonderful reprieve.
It’s quite beautiful here today, by the way. Speaking of snowy days.
Last year the Garden had a program called The Power of Trees. The New York Times called you the Lorax of Brooklyn, which is cute. What was the Power of Trees? It’s about climate change, combating climate change, a dialogue around climate change?
Well, it was first and foremost to have people pay attention to something which a little bit recedes into the background. So people come here for the flower fix. They want to see the cherry blossoms in April and May. They want to see the irises. They want to see the roses. And the trees become sort of the background, the scenery in an opera. We have 4,000 trees here almost. Some of them go back, they’re 110, 115 years old.
I have just learned this. You’re the first person to hear this …
Ooh, we’re breaking news?
We’re breaking news. We have 17 trees that are either national or global champions. They’re the biggest of their species.
We have the largest Kansas hawthorn in the United States. It’s not very big. You look at it and say, “That’s not very impressive.” But it’s the biggest Kansas hawthorn. It’s bigger than a Kansas hawthorn in Kansas. We have 17 trees that are either global or national champions growing here.
So first and foremost, we wanted to call attention the fact that we have these amazing trees. There are trees from all over the world. I’m looking out my window at the hill, which is primarily composed of trees in the pine family. They are, evolutionarily speaking, the oldest among the oldest species of plants in evolutionary history. And they’re trees from all over the world. They’re from Asia, they’re from Northern Europe, they’re from North America, they’re from South America. Probably four or five continents worth of trees that have needles instead of leaves, some of which drop the needles, some of which don’t. I think of this as an image for Brooklyn: There’s beings from all over the world whose feet, their roots are planted in the same soil, they’re touching each other, we know they’re touching each other, but they’re living in the same soil. They have a lot of the same needs, but they come from entirely different cells around the world. They’re living together happily in the soil of Brooklyn. To me, it’s an image of Brooklyn.
Diversity and inclusion. Speaking of trees, my favorite part of the garden is the little bonsai room where you have some of these trees that are 200 years old. Really incredible.
That’s the trick answer to the trick question. What’s the oldest tree in Brooklyn Botanic Garden? That’s our trick question. And they’ll say, “Oh, it must be your hybrid oak or something.” They’ll point to some big trees. But no, it’s this tiny little thing in the Bonsai Museum, which is 250 years old. The other first we have here is we have the very first bonsai brought to the United States from Japan in the 1920s.
You played a role in a Crown Heights gentrification squabble. Developers wanted to build a residential development that would be as tall as 34 stories within about 150 feet from the garden. You were a vocal opponent because of the shadow the buildings would’ve cast. How common is it for someone in your role to take a sort of activist role like that?
It’s extremely uncommon. I will not take credit for that because again, my predecessor, Scot Medbury, who had the courage to take on that role. And it was quite courageous because normally when you’re a museum or president of Lincoln Center or something, you don’t want to alienate either the real estate industry or city planners who might be favoring a certain construction. So you kind of try to stay out of the fray. In our case, it was an existential fray. There would’ve been well over an hour’s worth of extra shadow or an hour or two less of sunlight, in our most important area, which is where the conservatory is, where the plants that need the most sunlight, the tropical plants, the desert plants. We’re going to have the greatest loss of sunlight. So Scot was courageous and smart about going into this fight, and we realized we had thousands, literally thousands of allies in the community who would fight with us. We weren’t fighting alone.
It’s hard because there’s this dire need in the city for housing, as you know.
I think they correctly understood that this was kind of the camel’s nose in the tent. They were bringing in some affordable housing, but it was also going to be 800 units of market rate housing, 40 stories tall, like the tallest building outside of Downtown Brooklyn. That project was defeated. There is a smaller project that’s been brought back for consideration. We’re currently evaluating quite a bit smaller, whether it’s going to have any impact, if there’s anything we can do to attenuate that impact.
What’s the Adrian Benepe tour of the Botanic Garden? Where do you take them first?
We are just talking to Anne Pasternak at the Brooklyn Museum, and they’re going to be doing a Hiroshige exhibit this spring. The Hiroshiges come out every 25 years because they’re very special. So this is a must-see. And we’re going to be doing co-programming. So look at the Hiroshige prints of what the cherry trees look like in Edo, which is Tokyo in 1858. And we’ll show you that same cherry tree here on our grounds come to a Japanese style Hanami night picnic.
One other thing that characterizes us, which is kind of interesting, is we have four strong Japanese collections. We have the first public Japanese garden in any public space going back to 1914, our Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, which to me has always symbolized more than any other collection what the botanic garden is. Then right next door to it is the Cherry Esplanade with about 200 cherry trees, those four rows of cherry trees and additional cherry trees along a winding path. Then we have a relatively new addition, which is the tree peonies, a post-9/11 memorial gift from a prefecture in Japan, which have been there for about 20 years now. Glorious tree peonies that bloom in late May. And then we have the bonsai. So four very distinct, very important Japanese collections, which is interesting because New York City does not have a huge Japanese population. It’s not like Los Angeles or San Francisco. We have an outsized, very important Japanese collection.
You served as New York City’s parks commissioner, something you alluded to earlier in our conversation, from 2002 to 2012. You and I actually spoke in 2005 when Christo’s Gates were being installed in Central Park. That was the city’s largest public art undertaking to date, and it was under your watch at the Parks department. You oversaw the public-private partnerships that led to the Highline, Brooklyn Bridge Park. What is the role of a parks’ commissioner?
It’s the best job in New York, first of all, in some ways, because you’re in charge of people’s good times, in theory. Some bad things happen too. It’s much more fraught than people think. They think, “Oh, you have this really easy job. You’re planting the daffodils and all this.” But first of all, you’re in charge of about 20 percent of New York City’s lands. Just a lot of lands, 30,000 plus acres. They say, “Well, that’s not so bad,” but you’re in charge of all the pools and beaches where every day and every minute that they’re open, there’s a chance someone will drown. So I used to spend every summer worrying, trying to make sure that no one drowns at our pools and beaches.
But I would say that the thing that started to change in the New York City Park system and really became a bellwether for park systems around the country was that the same kind of partnership that Brooklyn Botanic Garden has with the city through the cultural affairs department also exists in parks. It’s a different model, but not that different with the Park Conservancy model. So the Central Park Conservancy, Prospect Park Alliance, Battery Conservancy, Friends of the High Line, they’re kind of like mini botanical gardens in some ways. They have a contract. They manage the park on behalf of the city. They raise private money. But as my parks colleagues will say to me, “We’re really jealous because you have a fence and a gate and you can close it at night, and we can’t,” which is a major advantage. It’s why our plants, for the most part, don’t walk away here, and we’re a museum of plants.
The thing that I really got to do, was really burnishing the public-private partnerships, understanding that they’re bringing serious resources to the table and they’re bringing management methodologies and innovations that we couldn’t do because of work rules or because of the city’s procurement process. The nonprofit sector like us and others can do things more efficiently than the city can. So it’s in the city’s interest to have these kinds of alternative management relationships. And so part of my job was encouraging us while also saying, “And by the way, at the end of the day, this all belongs to the people. So don’t do anything crazy. Don’t privatize this park. It’s got to be accessible. We’re going to have events here. There’s going to be artwork here.” So it’s a balancing act of encouraging these public-private partnerships while understanding that, at the end of the day, these are public resources that belong to the public.
You worked with Donald Trump during that time?
I knew the man. We did business with him because he was an operator. I mean, he operated the Wollman Rink and the Lasker Rink and the carousel and then finally the golf course.
Well, how was he then?
I’ll say this, when he was just an operator for the rinks, it was operated as a business, it was on the up and up as far as I could tell. But it was when he took over running the golf course that we built in Ferry Point Golf Course in the Bronx, that he started to lie about it in a very major way. The big lie was that he had built the golf course. He tried to make it into the Wollman skating rink myth, which is like, “The city couldn’t build the rink so I had to come and rescue them and build it,” which was partially true. But with the Ferry Point Golf Course, the city built it because we couldn’t get a private operator to do it and make it pay.
I know this because we had to spend $200 million building this golf course on top of a garbage dump. And then we needed an operator to operate it, to take care of it and run it as a golf club, and then to oversee the growing in of the greens, basically water the grass seed and build the clubhouse. That was Trump’s job. But by the time the Bloomberg administration left and the de Blasio administration came in, the de Blasio administration didn’t really know the narrative. So Trump jumped into the void and said, “Oh, the city couldn’t build this golf course so I had to build it.” And he had Ivanka telling that story like, “Oh, daddy built the golf course the city couldn’t build.” And this was the summer of 2016 where he was running for president.
And the press called and said, “Is this true?” I said, “Not only it is it not true, it’s a pants-on-fire lie. This is a giant lie.” And I told this to the New York Times and at WNYC, there was a big article about this. I was certain that a public official credibly proving that the candidate for president lied about something major that was instantly disprovable would sink his candidacy. I was so naive.
He could lie about anything. In those days, the press were much less savvy about saying, “Hey, that’s not true. How can you say it’s true? Show me the bills that you paid for construction if this is true.” That’s why I said, “If he built it, tell him to show you the construction contracts. I’ll show you the construction contracts as I oversaw them.” So I realized that the guy was just a congenital liar. He keep telling any lie no matter how big, and that the press didn’t understand that such a thing could exist, that someone would lie so blatantly knowing it was instantly disprovable. I tried as hard as I could to warn the world. “This man is a dangerous liar. He should come nowhere near the White House.” And obviously I was just one of many people singing that song, but nobody was hearing it.
And still half the country doesn’t hear it, which is baffling.
The city kicked him out of the Central Park, right? They took his name off.
They also kicked him out of the golf course. He’s finally done with all of them. At first, when they tried to kick him out of the golf course, they got too clever. The thing about city concessions is, which I know is from being parks commissioner, you can end any concession contract in the best interest of the city. You don’t need a cause. You just say, “In the best interest of the city, we’re ending this contract.” You don’t have to say why. And when they sue you, you’re going to win a lawsuit because that clause is in every contract. “This is terminable at will. You don’t need cause.” But the de Blasio administration got too clever. They said, “We’re ending this because blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” They should have simply said, “We’re just ending it. Period. Because we can end these things whenever we want to.” And I think they finally understood that at the current administration.
This may be a stupid question, but how would you explain the difference between a public park in the city and the botanic garden?
The garden is a museum of plants. Every single plant here has an accession number. It’s like every painting at the Metropolitan Museum has an accession number. They don’t all have a label, but there’ll be a label for every species that we have here. There’s a deliberate effort to have plants that represent the native plants of this area, a deliberate effort to have plants that represent as many of the different basic species as we can. The original plan for this garden, which still exists in certain ways, is plants laid out by plant families in terms of their evolutionary order. It’s called the plant family lawn. You start in the north and then work your way in the south. You’re following the trail of evolution.
I didn’t realize that. That dates back to the original days?
Originally, botanical gardens were first what they call a physics gardens or medicinal gardens. So when the only medicines available in the medieval ages were from plants, the royal courts would have a physics garden or a medicinal garden. That’s how botanical gardens get started. And then they start to evolve into, once they start to understand things, concepts like evolution, they start places where you display plants by families. But the oldest botanical gardens in Europe, which are principally in Italy — Padua I think is one of them — they go back to the days of, yes, this is where we get medicines from.
One of our challenges is, how do we tell the complicated stories of plants? Because just the plant label itself isn’t going to tell you very much. It’s going to tell you the scientific name and the common name, what country this plant originally came from, which may have nothing to do with which cultivar it is. There’s so many stories to be told about how is it used for food, for religion, for clothing, for all of these different things. And so as we’re going through a strategic plan, now we’re thinking, “How do you tell these very long stories that have many different rabbit holes?” It probably involves some form of using cell phones and the internet and being able to sort of click on a QR code and go down any rabbit hole you want to go down for this plant, all of its different names and different languages. But just because you’re in North America we call a plant this, it’s got a completely different name in other countries where it comes from.
Your own relationship to the city’s parks goes back to the ’70s. You began your career cleaning parks and locker rooms at 16, one of the first urban park rangers. What was a young Adrian like? What sort of pulled you into the parks?
I was a child of the parks, grew up in the Upper West side. I didn’t have a suburban childhood. The parks were my backyard and front yard. It was an interesting time because the downhill slide of the park system had already begun. There were becoming dangerous.
I was going to say, wasn’t Central Park kind of dicey back then?
It was quite dicey. When I was a little child, it was still okay. It was just dilapidated. By the time I was a teenager, it was dangerous. But it was still my park. It’s still where I went. I had one summer job as a push cart peddler. I had a food cart that was from a restaurants and I would load it up with soup and food bread and go to the park every day and sell lunchtime food at Grand Army Plaza and dinner food at the Shakespeare Theater. Since this was 1976, there were no rules being enforced so anybody could sell anything. Then I became a park ranger right out of college. My experience with parks was being a kid in the parks. Parenthetically, my father has two major roles in New York City Green history. One is in 1966 he was part of a group of guerrilla resistance fighters who blocked traffic in Central Park in bicycles and a horse carriage to say, “We can’t have 24/7 highways here. Can we have at least one Sunday a month to bike ride here?”
Prior to their guerrilla efforts, Central Park was a highway 24/7 with three lanes of traffic and they said, “Give us one Sunday a month.” They said, “Okay, we’ll give you one Sunday a month.” He said, “Well, how about one Sunday every weekend?” Then, “How about Saturday and Sunday?” So by accretion over the years, eventually, just a few years ago, they finally closed all of the drives to any form of traffic, and my father was present at that. So he was there at the beginning when they started the fight. He was here at the end when they finished the fight. And he’s still plugging along at the age of almost 96.
Did you talk politics a lot at home?
Oh, all the time, yeah. He is and was an architect and planner. His other claim to fame was in 1976. He and his partner invented the green market system in New York. There were no farmer’s markets before they did it. I worked with him that summer. One of the very first markets, people may not recall this was a market at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, there were a whole bunch of empty lots in those days.
Where Barclays Center, Atlantic Terminal is now?
Yes, it was devastated. The place, it looked like a war zone because there were all these empty lots where buildings had been torn down. It was well before Barclays or anything else. But it was a great place because every subway line in the city stopped there and the Long Island Railroad was underground, so it was a great location. People believed that the Union Square Green Market was the first. It wasn’t. It was actually a fourth that summer. The first was an empty lot at 58th Street and Second Avenue. But toward the end of the summer, they opened the Union Square Green Market. They opened five green markets that summer, one in Washington Heights, one at East 58th, one at Atlantic and Flatbush, and then finally the Union Square.
That’s great. And it’s still going.
And then later on, much later when I was parks commissioner, we once had a little bit of a public dispute. I was favoring putting in a restaurant concession in Union Square Park. My father was opposed to it.
Did he ever tell you how to do your job?
He did, but extremely gently. And he was way ahead of his time. He once showed me these maps where he said, “You know, between Madison Square and Union Square, Washington Square, there’s all this extra street space. You could just close it down and have half the street be a bike lane and have all these pedestrian plazas for sitting.” And he said, “Just do this. Go to the DOT and make this happen.” I said, “Dad, you’re crazy. This will never happen.” And here it is. He lived to see his crazy ideas fully and deployed.
Thank God for people like him. I’m a cyclist.
He was way ahead of his time. I think the terms of saying the city should first and foremost be for pedestrians and bicyclists, he was saying that in 1960s.
You went to journalism school though. You were an urban ranger. You go to college and then you go to Columbia. Why journalism? And you were smart to get out.
I was an English major at Middlebury College. Did a lot of creative writing, did some journalism. So I really thought I was going to be a writer. I enjoyed writing. I went to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I had this working scholarship there, and the person who read my manuscript was John Irving, which was pretty cool.
But there was this wonderful moment where during the summer, John Irving’s wife Shyla said to me, she said, “I really like you. You’re a great guy.” She said, “You’ll never be a great writer, but you will be a great public official one day.” She said that. I was 19.
Why? What made her say that?
Well, because I was rounding up all the writer’s kids and saying, “Let’s go to the waterfalls.” I was just organizing stuff. So she correctly assessed I would never be a great fiction writer at the very least, and also that I had civic organizing skills, which is pretty amazing because that’s what happened.
But I still wanted to be a writer. So when I came out of college, the way I got into the parks world was I got an unpaid internship working on a community, West Side community paper called Wisdoms Child. They said, “Go over to the Parks Department. There’s this new guy, Gordon Davis, he’s the Parks commissioner. There’s a woman, Betsy Barlow. She wants to do something in Central Park. Just nose around and find a story.” So I went over there and realized the idea of the Central Park Conservancy was being born.
This woman, Betsy Barlow, had just been appointed to be the first park administrator for Central Park overseeing the park. She had no power, she had no money, but things were bubbling and Betsy said, “Oh, by the way, Gordon, the new Parks commissioner, who is very innovative, is starting a new park ranger program and he’s going to hire all these idealistic young people to go out there with Smokey the Bear hats and be ambassadors to these forlorn parks.” She said, “You should become a park ranger.
So that sounds fun. We get paid to walk around Central Park? I applied and I got the job and I was in the first group of Rangers hired. It was my pathway into public service. I did that for a year and a half, and I was still stymied by the bureaucracy, still wanted to be the writer. I went to Columbia Journalism School, came out of there after one year, which is a great master’s degree. Really knew a lot about writing and working as a reporter and went to work as a reporter at the Hudson Dispatch in Union City following in the footsteps of a guy named Jim Dwyer.
Oh, from the New York Times.
That Jim Dwyer who had been at Columbia the year before. It was like a pipeline. Every year they hired two or three people right out of Columbia.
Union City, New Jersey?
Yes. So he was getting ready to move to the great metropolitan newspaper, the Asbury Home News. He trained me to take over his beat. That’s the year that he had done all the investigative work that put the mayor of Union City in federal prison for taking massive bribes.
Writing must come in handy in your role today.
Oh, very handy. I’ve done a lot of writing. But most important, it gave me a complete appreciation of a newspaper reporter calls you and is working a story, help them out. Know what the deadline is, tell them the truth, or tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that, but here’s what I can tell you on background.” Just don’t bullshit them. I never bullshit a reporter. Know they’re working a deadline. Answer the call right away. Don’t keep them waiting. And that has helped me enormously in my public service jobs because I was dealing with reporters all the time, and I understood they’re not my enemy, they’re not my press agent. They’re doing their jobs and let me help them do their jobs. If I let them help me do their jobs, they’ll at least be fair to me. And that worked most of the time.
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