LONG ISLANDER NEW
State Parks Foundation Salutes Bette Midler
By Peter Sloggatt
With a string of number-one songs and hit films — and all the residuals that go with them — one could assume entertainer Bette Midler to be one of those Hollywood legends who could retire comfortably and never work another day in her life. So just how is it that the campy nightclub-performer-turned-film star finds herself picking up trash in some of New York City’s most neglected neighborhoods?
“I can’t help myself,” said Midler, who moved to New York after growing up almost a half a world away on the island of Oahu. It a dinner last Friday, during which she was presented with the Long Island State Parks Region’s Robert Moses Master Builder Award, Midler recalled that when she arrived in the City, “I was appalled.” She described Hawaii as “so pristine — people honored the place. No one threw so much as a gum wrapper on the ground. People were out with tin pans and sweepers every day,” she said.
“When I came here I was so stunned. I didn’t understand how people threw their lunch out of car windows.”
Midler’s career flourished in Manhattan, where her campy nightclub act earned her the nickname, “the Queen of Trash.” A film career brought her to the West Coast, but in the early 1990s, earthquakes brought her back.
She found little had changed. Driving through neighborhoods where “there were mattresses in the trees” and “car carcasses left where they’d been stripped by the chop shops for parts,” she said to herself, “I have to do something.”
Not knowing where to start, Midler picked a spot she thought needed work. “I showed up at Riverside Park and said to [the superintendent], ‘I want to work for you.’” He explained to her that his park was in good shape, and took her to Fort Tryon Park in the Bronx. In the area surrounding the Cloisters Museum and overlooking the Jersey Palisades, she found a park literally buried in litter, where garbage heaps stood four feet high and where crack addicts and prostitutes ruled the roost.
“I was moved to tears. I cried,” said Midler.
Her penchant for garbage removal led Midler to found the New York Restoration Project in 1994, beginning what so far has been a decade of getting dirt under her fingernails, stopping to snatch plastic bags snagged by trees, and most important, raising money to reclaim some of New York’s most neglected public spaces. The Project claims as its mission to uncover, reclaim and clean neglected public spaces. In addition to Fort Tryon Park, which after a few years work is a source of pride in the neighborhood, according to Midler, the Project spearheaded an effort to save public community gardens, established a soon-to-open boathouse on the Harlem River, and is next tackling Roberto Clemente Park in the Bronx.
It was for this work that Midler was chosen to receive the award named in honor of Robert Moses — a man known as the father of Long Island’s State Parks — by the Long Island State Parks Foundation. The foundation is similar to Midler’s in that it privately raises funds for enhancement of parks. In recent years, the Foundation for Long Island State Parks has used approximately $130,000 to replace trees destroyed by beetle infestation, replace exercise station equipment, establish a visitor’s center at Nissequogue State Park and purchase defibrillators for use in Long Island parks.
New York State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, herself a Huntington resident, praised Midler for her work, from the new boathouse to the recent acquisition of property housing 49 community gardens to the current project to reclaim Roberto Clemente Park. Despite the enormity of the project, “this little bundle of energy walked in and said, ‘We’re going to do it,’” Castro said. She presented the star with an engraved Tiffany vase and thanked her for her efforts — past and future.
More than 500 guests attended the foundation’s dinner, with the approximately $150,000 in proceeds to be split evenly between Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Long Island parks foundation.