Newsday: April 23, 2003…Bette Interview…A Force of Nature

With her New York Restoration Project, Bette Midler has made it her mission to draw attention – and dollars – to restoring green spaces throughout the city
By Mary Voboril
April 23, 2003


When the first new boathouse in 100 years opens next spring on the Harlem River, Bette Midler plans to slither into one of the sleek new racing shells with her usual vampy aplomb.

“Ohhhh, yes! I’m going to be the person who does the yelling,” enthuses Midler, who dreamed up the boathouse idea and then raised $4 million to make it happen. “What’s that person called? The coxswain. I want to be the coxswain. That’s my strong suit, yelling.”

As if to prove her point, her voice ratchets up as she begins to talk – no, yell – on the telephone about the litter and other detritus that begrimes New York’s sidewalks, not to mention the gutters and streets, parks and shorelines. And does the self- anointed Divine Miss M actually stoop to pick up the occasional scrap of gritty, germy litter in her elegant Fifth Avenue neighborhood?

“Of course!” she says, voice rising. “Don’t you?

“That’s one thing I don’t understand. I walk along the street, and I see garbage on the ground, and people walk right by! I mean, I’m talking thousands of people walk right by. They see, like, a pizza box in the middle of the street, and instead of picking up the damn pizza box and putting it in the garbage, they walk right by!

“I don’t get it! Why? Why won’t they bend down and do a little something for their fellow man? Pick up that pizza box? Why? It’s beyond me. I see it; why don’t they?”

Midler pauses, briefly, for breath.

“Everyone deserves bright and beautiful places to re-create, to salvage your soul,” she continues, calmer now. “This has become a mania with me. It’s my mission.”

Who knew?

Midler, of course, is the blowsy, campy, sometimes wickedly funny singer-actress-vampster known, among other things, for puckering her painted lips, fluttering her made-up eyelashes and tossing off such leering, self-referential lyrics as, “Pretty legs and great big knockers; that’s what keeps ’em coming back for more!”

There was a time when Midler, who turns 58 this year, described herself as the Diva of Trash. She’s since morphed into a Queen of Green, a hands-on devotee of clearing Big Apple litter and, through her 8-year-old New York Restoration Project, rejuvenating parks in some of Manhattan’s least-affluent areas.

In Fort Tryon, Fort Washington, Highbridge, Gorman, Swindler Cove parks and in dozens of salvaged community gardens in otherwise bleak blocks, Midler quite literally has left her mark, using her high-profile, somewhat outré persona to attract attention – and dollars – for the public good.

Says Midler, whose early showbiz gigs in Manhattan centered on raunchy entertainment in gay bathhouses: “I’m sort of standing between two images.

“I’m someone who likes a lot of glitz and sings loud, bawdy songs and tells terrible jokes. On the other hand, I’m a quiet, introspective soul who likes flowers.”

And parks. One of her big success stories over the past seven years is Fort Tryon, once a spectacularly neglected park in an equally spectacular setting on the soaring, craggy cliffs above the Hudson River. Its derelict condition was at great odds with its primary asset, The Cloisters.

After hours, recalls Midler, “people were parking in museum parking lots and throwing beer bottles and crap into the park. Cleaning out their cars and leaving everything on the street.

“It was so staggering. Out of control! Enormous drug and beer parties. Prostitution. Entire hills covered with glass and condoms and crack vials. I mean, really appalling. You couldn’t take your kids there. The oppressiveness was awful. It weighs on your soul.”

But Midler and the restoration project, which she chairs, cleaned it and kept it clean. Midler herself worked on successive weekends, her glam gams and great big attributes hidden by utilitarian overalls.

Says an admiring Adrian Benepe, parks and recreation commissioner: “She’s taken on parks in areas no one else would think of taking them on, let alone succeed. She came into areas that were euphemistically ‘challenging’ – waterfront edges full of flotsam and debris, highway edges full of garbage, parks on the sides of cliffs – and did terrific things.”

Benepe himself has seen her onsite perhaps half a dozen times; “I’ve worked with her on cleanups where she was carrying disgusting old tires….

“Really, she’s the best friend a park system could ask for. If we could clone her, it would be great.”

And the work isn’t just a short-term fix. “We make a long- term commitment,” by way of a management contract with the city, says Amy Gavaris, the restoration project’s executive vice president.

With $250,000 in seed money, Midler launched the project in 1995. Since then, the state has kicked in funding on a per- project basis, and Midler raises most of the rest through personal arm-twisting and splashy, celebrity-studded galas.

Kid Rock, the rapper/singer, generated one of the bigger bids last year when, for $10,000, he offered to sing an impromptu medley of off-color songs. A nearby attendee offered $15,000 if he’d just shut up. Kid Rock demanded $30,000. “Done,” the donor said. “And the guy actually paid,” Gavaris marvels.

Guests included Rosie O’Donnell, John McEnroe, Katie Couric, Caroline Rhea – who dressed devilishly in red and with a trident-like pitchfork ran around prodding bidders to bid more – and Norman Peck, head of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.

Many nonprofits have good intentions, Peck says, but they lack a hard-driving central figure committed to follow-through, someone “who has a sort of owner’s eye. Bette Midler projects that. You got the feeling that she’d pay an extraordinary amount of attention to the job. She cares about this,” all of which is hugely important to the foundation.

“Our great nightmare,” Peck says, “is that you put money in and it runs through the floorboards.”

Midler’s project, he says, has a tangible, get-it-done track record. Not only has it purchased gardens and restored parks, it renovated and now manages the New Leaf Café in a stone building south of The Cloisters.

Early on, Gavaris says of some sites, “it’s war. We go out every day and pick up garbage. If you do it one more time than they do” – “they” being the litterers – “then you win. You have to be committed to that kind of persistence and that kind of stubbornness.”

For Midler, who has described herself as “beyond green. I’m hunter green. I’m not olive green or chartreuse, I’m really dark, dark green,” errant plastic bags are a special annoyance.

“I was up on Third Avenue in the ’70s and, oh my God, the stuff that’s in those trees,” Midler said. “It’s scandalous.”

Not being one to sigh and walk on by, she plucks the dreck from the trees with her own two hands or calls tax- supported entities and demands they do it.

“I’ve met everybody in sanitation,” Midler says. Though few parks targeted by Midler are known to philanthropists, she says she raises about $2 million a year for their rehabilitation and maintenance. (In contrast, the Central Park Conservancy, now a fashionable charity, raises roughly $20 million a year, for a total of nearly $300 million since 1980.) When she takes potential donors to Upper Manhattan parks for some personal arm-twisting, “they never know where they are,” Midler says. Invariably they say, ‘Are we in the Bronx?'”

Such was the case at Fort Washington Park, home to the Little Red Lighthouse of storybook fame. “It’s a staggering piece of real estate we’ve been looking after,” Midler says. “Hardly anybody knows how to get to it.”

Some do, though: Among the tons of detritus plucked from the park, Midler says, were two bodies.

Though such an under-visited park can be “a tough thing to raise money for,” Gavaris says, “Bette has a beautiful line about that: ‘We’re the conservancy of forgotten places.'”

The restoration project has a paid office staff of nine, plus 17 in the field and a contract for 68 AmeriCorps workers, about a third of whom come from Upper Manhattan, Gavaris says. The project also publishes a quarterly newsletter, Good Dirt.

One smaller undertaking is a long-abandoned 5-acre sliver of land on the Harlem River shore, a former boating mecca that was called Sculler’s Row.

The park, scheduled to open this summer, adjoins PS 5. It is an emerging web of granite-lined pathways, a small pond flanked by flagstones, gardens and wetlands and a grassy space. “Kids can’t get enough green grass, places where you can take your shoes off,” says Gavaris, pausing along the fast-flowing river during an informal tour.

The park is on the shores of “Swindler Cove,” christened in honor of Billy Swindler (a project staff member who died of AIDS at 39), and it is to provide access to the new boathouse. It is from this site that Midler will take her maiden voyage as coxswain.

Midler’s group also is working with Floating the Apple, a nonprofit consortium of New York and New Jersey residents who sponsor rowing events and boat building. Their goal – to reintroduce the public, especially young people, to the joys of rowing and sailing on urban waters and to restore access to public waterways – meshed nicely with that of the restoration project, which already was running an afterschool boatbuilding program for 11- to 15-year-olds in Upper Manhattan.

Serendipitously, Midler’s group also had a contract to clean, restore and maintain the Swindler Cove park.

“I just put two and two together,” Midler says of her boathouse brainstorm. “We never looked back.”

Midler’s pal Yoko Ono initiated funding with $100,000. Sportswear maker Speedo gave $1 million. The state Department of Transportation provided $1.6 million in 1998 for the park, boathouse and wetlands restoration.

Another renaissance-in-the-works is Highbridge Park, a lush, 119-acre expanse whose stone paths, craggy cliffs, stairways and glades are separated from Swindler Cove by the Harlem River Driveway.

Much of Highbridge, like the Augean Stables, had been left uncleaned for three decades. It housed a thriving “chop-shop,” where stolen cars would be steered down the remnants of fine old granite steps and stripped.

“A terrible, terrible place – 119 acres of nothing but garbage. And I’m talking garbage!” Midler says. “Five thousand tires! But still the birds came.”

In what they consider their biggest success to date, the restoration project, joined by parks department crews, eventually exposed four miles of long-obscured stone paths and wrought iron fencing. The challenge now, Gavaris says, “is not just to restore it, but to get people to come back.” Designed 110 years ago as a strollers’ park, “it’s not programmed for the way people use parks now,” but it could be recast for rock climbing, dirt biking, running and in-line skating.

A question nags: Isn’t the project’s work the very work the city should be doing? Gavaris pauses. “I think that every day. But the reality is that public money is shrinking for the maintenance of our public spaces. And so, here we are.”

The New York Restoration Project, says Benepe, is one of 12 such groups that collectively raise and spend about $50 million a year in city parks. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a day where there is not private participation in public parks,” he says. If there is opposition to the project’s efforts, Gavaris says, it isn’t especially vocal. “How can anyone argue against someone wanting to go out and pick up garbage?”

Zead Ramadan certainly can’t. He chairs Community Board 12, which covers Upper Manhattan, and even he concedes that certain park land on his home turf “was trash central.” The restoration project, with help from the parks department, “has done a really, really good job cleaning it up,” he says.

Ramadan noticed it one day as he drove by. Puzzled, he made inquiries. Not only had Midler’s group stepped in, he learned, it also had commissioned several studies, including “Visions for the Harlem River Waterfront,” a full-color, professionally prepared planning document dated last February.

By then it was October. Community Board 12 had been left utterly out of the loop.

“That was distressing,” says Ramadan, comparing it to a stranger entering a home, scrubbing it clean and then redecorating – all without consulting the tenant.

Even so, he says, “I’m happy with what I’ve seen so far. We have no issues with their intentions. It’s like, how do you bite a hand that helps? We don’t want them to stop. We’d just like to be more involved in the decision-making.”

The restoration project may have requisite permits and maintenance contracts, he says, “but the people giving them the authority don’t reside in our community.”

As for Midler, however, Ramadan says she’s an example of what one person can do to effect lasting change. “I commend her.”

In an economic sense, the downtrodden neighborhood of Midler’s youth was similar to some of those in Upper Manhattan. She grew up in modest circumstances outside Honolulu as one of four children of a house painter. She was president of her high school class, spent a year at the University of Hawaii and then sluiced into show business.

Midler’s swaggery “sleaze with ease” persona was apparent at a 1972 New Year’s Eve performance, when she wore a diaper and vinyl sash. In London, she flashed her breasts. In 1974, Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals named her Woman of the Year. In a full skirt and a smug grin, Midler twirled onstage, revealing bare legs and bare everything.

But that was then. She went on to win four Grammys, three Emmys, three Golden Globes, two Academy Award nominations, one Tony – and, from the State of New York, the Governor’s Award for Parks and Preservation. Even the United Nations feted her for making New York more livable.

(Midler, her husband and their daughter, Sophie, now 16, moved to New York from California after the 1994 earthquakes. She married Martin von Haselberg, a commodities broker-turned-performance artist, in 1984 in a 2 a.m. Las Vegas ceremony. An Elvis impersonator officiated.)

Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields wrote a letter supporting Midler’s nomination for a Conservation Medal from the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, noting that the restoration project has hauled away 75,000 tons of trash from 375 acres of Upper Manhattan parks and that more than 5,000 students have benefited from the project’s bicycling, rowing and gardening projects.

Vogue magazine dubbed her an “environmentalist,” and Organic Style magazine feted her as one of 10 women with “amazing grace” and “true grit.”

There have been failures. The project staff aggressively tackled a trash-choked 40-acre parcel in Brentwood, hauling junk, litter, garbage and construction debris from the Oak Brush Plains, part of the Pine Barrens. They intended to build a perimeter trail and install signs interpreting the Pine Barrens ecosystem.

“A great project,” says Gavaris, wistfully. The problem was recruiting schools or other entities as partners to ensure upkeep on what had become an informal dump. “People were coming out the back of their homes and throwing out garbage, she says.”

At the same time, Manhattan projects were becoming more ambitious, and recruiting AmeriCorps workers for Brentwood “was very hard,” Gavaris says. “That combination of things made us take a step back.”

After four years, the project pulled out, “for now,” Gavaris says. “We’ll go back. We think about it.”

For the time being, there are plenty of challenges right in New York City. The Midler Doctrine holds that “A beautiful environment adds to civility,” but New York, as a whole, she says, “is not really pretty.

“It’s one of the greatest cities in the world. So why does it look the way it does? Why are the streets so dirty? Why aren’t there more trees? Why isn’t the whole thing blooming?”

Despite such frustrations, Midler has no plans to leave New York. For one thing, her daughter has another year of high school, and after that she wants to attend college in the East.

“Even if we don’t stay – I mean, I’m no spring chicken – I feel I’ve left a legacy,” Midler says. “The next step is to build an endowment, so it will always survive.

“And we’re looking forward to moving into the Bronx. I’m going to keep going.”
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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