It’s no accident Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe grew up to be a leaf lover. His father, Barry Benepe, 79, co-founded the city’s greenmarket network more than 30 years ago, filling parks like Union Square with farmers’ goods at a time when they were better known for yielding dirty needles than heirloom tomatoes. (There are now 30-odd markets citywide.) Benepe père then helped found Transportation Alternatives, and for all this urban do-gooderism, the Rockefeller Foundation just awarded him one of its first Jane Jacobs medals, which come with a nice $100,000 prize. The now-retired Daddy Benepe (who lives, appropriately, on Jane Street in the Village with his wife, Judith) talked to New York about the greenmarkets’ gritty early days — and picked a few bones with his son.
What are you going to do with the money?
Give half of it to various nonprofits and do some traveling with the rest, to England, France, Italy. I’m not very esoteric in terms of travel.
So do you still go to the greenmarkets?
My closest one is in Abingdon Square on Saturdays. Otherwise I go to Union Square.
What’s in your basket?
Tomatoes and fresh corn on the cob are my favorites. And this time of year, strawberries, cherries and blueberries, which I eat with yogurt.
What was Union Square like when the market first opened there in 1976?
Really bad. The drug dealers would tell the farmers that it wasn’t safe to come in there. And nobody was coming. It didn’t really take off till ’83 or ’84.
How would you improve Union Square today?
I’d like to see the surfaces on the streets around it changed to a slow-speed material like cobblestones or interlocking Z-blocks so there’s a traffic calmness to the whole area. But as a strong green oasis, it gets better every year.
What should your son do as commissioner that he hasn’t so far?
Close Central Park Drive to through-traffic permanently. You’d only have to close the entrances to 59th Street. Now taxis use the park to get down to the theater district faster.
Have you sat him down about these issues?
I’ve said to him, “These are some of my concerns.”
And he says?
“I work for the mayor, not for you.”
Related: Their Reward for Imagining What New York City Can Be [NYT]
The Greenmarket Effect [NYM]