A s spring turned to summer and the City Council weighed Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget for this year, protests erupted over some of the cuts recommended by City Hall. Pols rallied to stop the closure of 20 fire companies. Day care workers facing layoffs marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. One advocacy group went to federal court to block cuts to AIDS housing services. But there was little furor over the 13 percent cut that the mayor proposed for the Department of Parks and Recreation—the largest reduction faced by any major agency.
No news there. Despite controlling 19.5 percent of the city’s land, the Parks Department has relatively little political pull, and that translates into disappointment every budget season. Bloomberg has increased the Parks budget by an inflation-adjusted 13 percent during his time in office, but that’s failed to keep pace with the overall city budget, which grew 24 percent. The result is that Parks, which by some accounts garnered 1.4 percent of the budget in the 1960s, will get only 0.44 percent of city spending in fiscal 2011. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia and Houston spend less per capita on parks than New York does. The number of full-time employees at the department is 1,000 less today than it was in 1987.
The modern Parks Department dates back to 1934, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia unified the then separate borough parks systems under one agency and named Robert Moses its commissioner. Moses would rule for 26 years, more than doubling the acreage of the system, increasing the number of playgrounds from 199 to 777, establishing pools, beaches and parkways. Moses’ fearsome behind-the-scenes power—he simultaneously ran several state and city entities—bolstered the parks. “Politically it was part of the Moses empire,” says Gordon Davis, an attorney who served as Parks commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch. “So you didn’t fuck with the Parks Department.”
But it wasn’t just Moses’ political heft that helped build the modern park system. His singular skill at attracting federal money, at a time when New Deal work relief programs were dispensing billions, positioned New York’s parks as prime beneficiaries of Washington’s largesse. Moses’ stewardship of Parks was not without critics, who valued quality over quantity and thought his designs for park space and equipment were dreary and unimaginative.
When John Lindsay became mayor and appointed Thomas Hoving commissioner, creativity in using parks took precedence over creating new ones (although Lindsay’s team did originate “vest pocket” parks to provide smaller open spaces in neighborhoods where bigger plots of land were unavailable). Cultural events—plays, concerts and “be-ins” arrived in city parks. But Hoving left the job after a little more than a year, and over the next decade, the department had six commissioners.
Meanwhile, city finances deteriorated to the point that parks capital projects had to be scrapped in 1978 because the city was shut out of the bond market. After Koch became mayor, several people turned down the Parks job, says Davis, who eventually accepted it. Davis built on what was left; for instance, he changed the construction of park benches when he noticed which design had survived a blitz of vandalism in Red Hook Park. He took to the airways to restore confidence in parks. But money was still the toughest battle.
“The fight for resources was a real full-time effort that always involved a little shenanigans on my part,” Davis recalls. This included an effort one year to retain seasonal employees that he was supposed to fire. Budget officials caught his attempted sleight of hand and unsuccessfully pressed Koch to fire the commish.
When Henry Stern took over as commissioner in 1983, he had buttons printed-up: “I had a goal o f1 percent of the city budget [for Parks] by the millennium,” Stern says. “I gave them 17 years. However, it was not to be.”
But, funding did at least stabilize during the Koch administration. When the 1990 recession hit, however, Mayor Dinkins slashed Parks funding 22 percent, a devastating cut from which the Parks Department’s head count has never recovered. “Boom, as soon I got in, the budget was cut,” recalls Betsy Gotbaum, Dinkins’ Parks commissioner. “I was not only surprised, I was terribly upset. I had fights with the mayor. But I would never get any satisfaction out of that.”
To deal with the budget blow, Gotbaum cut costs— and earned the enmity of unions—by laying off laborers, arguing that their job titles were too inflexible. On the revenue side, Gotbaum revived the City Parks Foundation to attract private money to parks outside of Central Park; one $6 million grant helped restore the city’s natural forests.
Stern retook the department’s helm during the Giuliani era. Under both Koch and Giuliani, Stern says, funding “was always a problem.” He adds: “Both their priorities were public safety and education, which I thought was a mistake, because you’d think that a little money for parks wouldn’t have hurt public safety or education.”
During Stern’s second stint, at least by the department’s own rating system, the percentage of parks rated acceptable rose from 43 per- cent in 1995 to 88 percent in 2001. Second only to Moses in total tenure as Parks chief, Stern created over 2,000 Greenstreets, erected 2,500 historic signs and— with the Central Park Conservancy—oversaw the flagship park’s recovery.
During the Bloomberg administration, under commissioner Adrian Benepe, the Parks budget increased steadily until 2009, when it composed 0.54 percent of the city’s budget—its highest share since 1991. That share has since fallen slightly.
A citywide constituency for parks has not been visible in memory. Parks advocates think that can change, although it might require a mind-set that’s never really existed in a city where, for 26 years, Moses was the only advocate parks needed and, for the past three decades, a fiscal-crisis mentality has pushed parks to the back of the line. “I think there’s a huge case for more spending and a chance for it, but it will take a very big effort to build support for that,” says Lee Stuart, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. Looking at expanding the city’s revenue stream is also important, Stuart says—not just how much revenue comes in, but where it goes: Each year the parks generate tens of millions in income that goes not to the parks system but into the city’s general fund.