Madison Square Park Conservancy

Last night, I attended an event to honor Danny Meyer for his incredible, city-changing work at Madison Square Park. Under a tent in the pouring rain, he shared a story with the audience, one that I already knew. It is one of the joys of living in this city long enough to be part of its history and remember what has changed.

Fred and I moved to the city in August of 1983 and into 80 Madison. At that time, the neighborhood was filled with single-room occupied hotels that the city had put people up in. The area was overwhelmed with prostitutes, homeless, and drug addicts, but we could both walk to work, so what did we know?

Many nights, we would walk through Madison Square Park; depending on the hour, we would walk around it, down 5th Avenue, which was also a bit suss, to the Village for food, drink, and entertainment. The only guide was Zagats, which I discovered a bit later on.

Fast forward, Danny made it his mission to bring the park back to the days of yore, when it was beautiful and the community used it. He brought in an art program, thanks to his Mom’s dedication to the arts (it was her idea), and went to people like us to raise capital alongside the big donations from the insurance companies that loom over the park at 11 Madison.

It was the first significant gift we had ever made to an organization: $20K of Yahoo stock. Danny didn’t realize he should sell the stock when it changed hands and watched it go up, up, up before calling Fred to ask what he should do. Fred said sell, as all organizations should sell immediately, but in this case, luck was on the side of the park, as it has been since Danny touched it. The stock had more than tripled.

We celebrated at an event upstairs at 11 Madison with the original donors, who only filled two tables. Times have certainly changed. What has stuck with me is the conservancy and, of course, the private-public partnership, as all parks (except Bryant Park, which created a separate deal) are part of the NYC Parks Department. A conservancy sits on top of the park that has working capital to make sure the park never crumbles back into despair again.

Now, I am the Chair of the Public Housing Community Fund, which is working on cleaning up years of neglect in NYCHA parks, and a few other things such as job training. We want to create a conservancy for the NYCHA parks, too; we want to make those parks beautiful with people using them and enjoying them daily, and we want to see rotating art in those parks. Those parks might sit inside NYCHA communities, but they also affect other residents of NY. Can we imagine what an incredible city we could have if we treated public housing like we treated other residential areas? And why wouldn’t we? After all, 17% of all residents live in those buildings.

The parks went through a tough time in the 80s; remember Tompkins Square Park when it was encamped with homeless people, and they put a gate around the entire park? It is time for NYCHA parks to get the love they deserve. We have redone a few parks, but there are countless left.

I am passionate about making these changes alongside our board and the executive director, Alex Zablocki, who is one of the best I have ever worked with. The time has come to do the right thing for the residents of NYCHA.