BootLeg Betty

“Brian, We’ve Got To Weed.”

October 30, 2005
Midler Embraces the Passing of Time and the Greening of a City

After showing off the community garden with the composting toilet, Bette Midler took stock of things. The conversation had turned to two numbers that figure in her life these days: 60, for the birthday that she is about to celebrate, and 10, the age of the New York Restoration Project, the nonprofit group she started to clean up parks.

(Thanks for sending me the original Darrell)

She started with the birthday. “I was going to get really depressed, and I thought, ‘So what?’ Let’s put a good face on it, because it’s a really good face,” she said, and laughed.

As for her work with the parks – which included arranging the purchase of 50 city-owned lots to keep the city from auctioning them off for housing – she knows all the things that people whisper when a celebrity takes up a cause like parks in neighborhoods she does not even live in. “There’s a distinct possibility that it’s vanity, but even if it were, so what?” she said. “The gardens stand as a testament to nature, and I love nature despite what she did to me.”

The two numbers – 60 and 10 – will come up again tomorrow at the group’s annual Hulaween gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. Besides celebrating the group’s first decade, Ms. Midler will give an award for environmental work to the rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. Elton John will be at the celebration, which is also for Ms. Midler’s 60th birthday, on Dec. 1.

Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, called her “a delightful and purposeful Pied Piper” and credited her and her group with tackling projects “no one else would think of taking on.”

Ms. Midler’s involvement has been hands-on. While visiting a park in Upper Manhattan, she chatted with groundskeepers and gardeners about tree limbs that had been knocked down by storms. “I think I’m doing what I was meant to do,” she said. “This is the greatest thing I ever did in my life.”

She and her group have removed 80,000 tons of garbage from neglected parks and lots over 10 years, and she helped haul away discarded tires and other junk. The group helped create Swindler Cove Park on the Harlem River, at the Harlem River Drive and 10th Avenue, and found a donor to underwrite a boathouse there. It also renovated a cafe in Fort Tryon Park.

Ms. Midler helped clean up freeways under California’s adopt-a-highway plan when she lived in Los Angeles. When she moved back to New York in 1994, she said, she was troubled by how badly the parks had deteriorated. “I remember driving past Riverside Park and saying, ‘What happened?’ ” she said. She remembers seeing discarded couches, other junk and homeless people.

She made some calls. One parks department employee told her, “I know you think Riverside isn’t very nice, but let me show you something else.” She said his inflection conveyed the message “If you think this is bad, let me show you worse.”

Mr. Benepe remembered meeting her about that time. He had been a lower-ranking parks official, and he invited her to dinner at his apartment. He cooked – “I don’t remember what,” he said. “Probably seafood. As I recall, she was wearing overalls.”

By then, groups like the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance were looking after specific parks. Ms. Midler decided to set up a public-private partnership. “Until government gets it together, you can’t allow everything to deteriorate,” she said. “Until the government decides there is a different way to step in and raise money, we’ve got to.”

Visiting a handful of parks and gardens in Manhattan one morning, she raced through a garden on East 114th Street near Pleasant Avenue, across 114th from Thomas Jefferson Park. The garden was restored with a $250,000 grant from Tiffany & Company, and John Loring, the Tiffany designer, created chairs and a statue with Jefferson’s profile.

The garden is down the block from another, the Rodale Pleasant Park Community Garden. Rodale, the publisher of Prevention, Men’s Health and other magazines, donated $250,000 for the garden and its rainwater collection system and composting toilet.

Ms. Midler contributes money to the group, but Julia Erickson, its executive director, said the amount was less than 1 percent of the group’s $4.9 million annual budget, with the rest coming from donations from others. In 10 years, the New York Restoration Project has gone from 2 staff members working in an office at Rolling Stone magazine to 15 staff members in rented quarters.

Amy T. Gavaris, the executive vice president, was initially hired as an assistant director. She said she was offered the job in the first minute of her job interview, with the executive director at the time, and did not meet Ms. Midler until later.

Ms. Erickson, who joined the group this year, met Ms. Midler early on and also met with board members, but she did not get the job until her final interview, with Ms. Midler, who conducted it by telephone from New Zealand, where she was performing.

“One thing that hasn’t changed, as far as I can tell, is her involvement,” said Brian Sahd, a vice president. “She sees something and she still says, ‘Brian, we’ve got to weed.’ “

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