Bettezilla Takes On New York City

New York’s Need for Green
Gotham Gazette, March 30, 2003
By Bette Midler

Bettezilla.jpgWhen I came back to New York to live in 1993, I found a city reeling – buried under piles of garbage! Parks were abandoned, highways were filthy and ugly to drive on, magnificent buildings were covered in graffiti, and even the steps of our revered Metropolitan Museum of Art were littered and far from inviting.

I swooned. I was more than depressed. Then I pulled myself together and got mad. How can the biggest, richest city in the world have the littlest heart? How could this have happened to the best that this country has to offer?

Then I remembered one of my greatest heroes on this planet – Eugene Lang. On an impulse one day, he started a foundation called “I Have A Dream.” It happened as he looked out at a sea of young faces on graduation day at his old elementary school. He realized that this group of bright young people – our future – had no hope. So right then and there he promised every child in that class a college education.

He then set out to establish the support system that those children (and hundreds more to follow) needed to make that dream come true. The Eugene Lang story made an enormous impression on me. He saw a need, he came up with a plan, and he saw it through to its completion, literally changing the lives of kids in the process. I knew what I had to do.

I began to do extensive research about garbage. I learned what existing greening groups and government agencies (with their limited budgets) were able, and were not able, to accomplish. I walked – step by step and mile by mile – through some of Manhattan’s most neglected public spaces. I read. I asked questions. After all, I am the Queen of Trash! And after over a year and a half of intensive study, I formed The New York Restoration Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to reclaiming and maintaining parks, community gardens, vacant lots – every potential “green” space that is in disarray.

Since we began in 1995, the Project has picked up nearly 25,000 tons of garbage! Not any old garbage – we do not infringe on New York City’s Department of Sanitation’s territory (in fact, we work very closely with them) but garbage specifically in parks and vacant lots, often strewn on cliffs and stuffed into trees!

Almost exactly a year ago, we helped buy 114 community gardens in all five boroughs that the city was about to auction off. I personally purchased 51 of those gardens – the ones that people said were the least desirable, but the ones I thought were the most needed. We established the New York Garden Trust to help the gardeners who had created these 51 little urban oases to take care of them forever. We’re still working out the details and we will have an AmeriCorps team in each borough starting this fall!

But there are still hundreds of such community gardens that are not off the hook. Some, it’s true, are slated for worthwhile community uses, such as schools and housing for seniors. But many of them can and should be preserved as green space, and it is those places we are working our tails off to identify. At the same time, we are trying to find out how much vacant land there really is in our town, and how many of those vacant lots can be transformed into new and beautiful community gardens.

The most important thing is to create green space in those communities that don’t have enough. Did you know that the Department of City Planning suggests that there should be 1.5 acres of green space for every thousand citizens? Plenty of New York neighborhoods do not meet that standard. Most of the community gardens are in those very neighborhoods.

Our parks, gardens, and public spaces are not a gift – they are a right! They are not inessential – they are vital. Every citizen of this city, or any city, has the right and the need to walk into nature, and to refresh and restore themselves. I believe that a beautiful environment encourages people to behave beautifully.

Spring is here and gardens are blooming all over town! Now what we need to keep our focus on are the gardens and public open spaces that are not yet blooming. And the ones that are not faring well – we need to think about how we are going to care for those places.

Roads, bridges, subways, sidewalks and sewers are built to withstand tremendous wear and tear. But, parks are the opposite of concrete and steel. By their nature they are designed to require almost daily maintenance, care, and investment. Who’s going to pay for all this? How are we going to get new parks, better maintenance, more recreation?

The private sector has certainly done its job in jumping in and helping out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with expecting New York’s businesses and foundations, as well as individual New Yorkers, to assist in the city’s beautification. That’s been a noble tradition for generations, and we all need to come up with creative yet realistic ways to ensure that that support continues.

But government has its role as well. Right now, the city government budgets roughly only $175 million in operating costs for a system that comprises almost 30,000 acres – that’s nearly twice the size of Manhattan. Most advocates agree that a budget that would get the job done would be closer to $350 million, or twice what it is now. Cities including Chicago, Oakland, Seattle and even right here in Great Neck, Long Island all spend much more money for each acre of their park land than we do.

And in all those cities, unlike New York, the municipal governments have dedicated revenue streams for their park systems. In other words, their funding is not vulnerable from year to year to the whims of city politics and the economy. These other cities do not rely on voluntary philanthropy, do not decrease the level of public funding as the level of private funding goes up. Rather, the public and the private work together to come up with innovative ways of funding parks – using the revenues, for example, from park concessions (from hot dog vendors to stadiums.) They also work together to ensure that poor and underserved neighborhoods are not left behind.

These other cities should serve as models for how New York can maintain a network of parks worthy of its people. To sum up what’s needed:

Neighborhoods that need more green space should get it
The city’s budget for parks should double.
There should be an official Public/Private policy that maximizes park enhancement
We should look at other cities like Chicago and Seattle and Great Neck where revenue from specific sources is permanently earmarked to the local park systems, protecting them from the annual budget process.
Parks concession revenues should be turned directly back into parks
We must all do our part – governments, businesses, non-profits, and just people walking down the street and stopping to pick up a piece of trash that is littering the sidewalk. I do it. And so should you!

Bette Midler, an entertainer, is the founder and chairwoman of the New York Restoration Project

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