Starting in the 1960s, Central Park began a long decline. Once-emerald lawns were trampled to bare dirt. Ineffective policing and homeless policies allowed vagrants and gangs to take over. Graffiti was everywhere. New York’s 1970s fiscal crisis and restrictive public-employee union rules cut routine maintenance, and the park’s landmarks were neglected and vandalized. Many thought the park was beyond rescue. Along came Richard Gilder, the founder of a brokerage firm and a leading philanthropist in New York City. “I could see the dreadful condition of the park.” To do something—anything—Gilder teamed up with hedge-fund titan George Soros. “This was my first attempt at philanthropy,” Soros later remembered. “Our outlook on life is quite different. He’s a libertarian, and I’m much more of a government-interference type. Nevertheless, we got on very well.” A 1976 study the two men commissioned called for a private board and modern management to revive the park. In 1978, newly elected Mayor Ed Koch took an interest in this citizen activism and the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy was born in 1980 to improve a public asset with private organization and resources. Its central insight, according to director Elizabeth Rogers, was that “You don’t throw money at the problem, you throw management.”
The Central Park Conservancy resodded the Sheep Meadow and rebuilt crumbling Belvedere Castle. With each successful project, the public could see that the conservancy was working, and the nonprofit gradually took the reins from the city parks department, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in citizen donations (crowned by a 2013 gift of $100 million from financier John Paulson). Since 1998 the conservancy has had a long-term contract with the city to manage the park. Central Park currently attracts 42 million visitors annually, up from 12 million in the early 1980s, and crime has fallen by more than 90 percent. The conservancy now provides 85 percent of the park’s $45 million budget, and employs 90 percent of the park’s maintenance staff. Private money and private management have made Central Park a jewel, and created a model that spread quickly to other places. “Dick Gilder made it possible for citizens to get involved in the life of public parks,” says Adrian Benepe of the Trust for Public Land.
The successes of the Central Park Conservancy inspired dozens of similar efforts in other cities across the country. Piedmont Park in Atlanta, St. Louis’s Forest Park, Shelby Farms in Memphis, and strings of parks in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Buffalo, and other places were modeled directly on the Central Park example, not to mention spinoffs launched in New York City itself to create the High Line and improve Battery, Prospect, and other parks. Ironically, the original conservancy was imperiled when Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and threatened to siphon resources out of the independent park conservancies and redirect them to other locations under city control. To stay on top of its many demands, the conservancy in 2016 launched a 10-year fundraising campaign to raise an extra $300 million for park improvements and maintenance. One of the first responses was a $25 million gift from the Thompson Family Foundation.
- About the Central Park Conservancy, centralparknyc.org/about
- Philanthropy magazine, https://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/philanthropy-magazine/article/philanthropy-on-the-green