The Hudson River Greenway now runs from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil. You can bike the whole length of Manhattan’s West Side and encounter only one street crossing. The High Line is the envy of urban planners worldwide. Brooklyn Bridge Park is opening in stages and is already busy on warm days. “I got here twenty years into the rise from the seventies depths,” says Adrian Benepe, who became parks commissioner in 2002 and, after a decade-long run, stepped down this September, having overseen “the transformation of parks from places you avoid to places you go to.” If you lived in eighties New York near, say, the grim dust bowl of Bryant Park, you have an intuitive grasp of what he means. These days, the parks system has been infused with private money, full of public-private partnerships like the rest of Bloomberg’s New York.
There are people who knock Benepe for that, saying that the parks have been increasingly privatized on his watch. “I’d say the opposite,” he offers. “Back in the seventies, there was a monopoly—and when the city was fiscally sound, that was good. But when you had revolving-door commissioners, it was terrible. When private citizens are involved, you get the money—and that’s terrific—but you also get tens of thousands of volunteers.”
There’s more to be done, of course, and when I ask Benepe what he regrets about leaving, he thinks for a moment. “The transformation of Fresh Kills from a giant garbage dump into a 21st-century park—that’s gonna need a lot of leadership and funding,” he says. “Central Park took 25 years from start to finish; Fresh Kills, because of all the need to comply with environmental regulations, and also time for the garbage to settle down, will take 40. It’ll take the next eight or ten mayors to get it done.”