Friday in the Park with Adrian
He started out picking up beer cans and swabbing out locker
rooms. Now a “parkie” is running the New York City Parks Department as it
enters a new golden age.
By Linda McIntyre
Parks in New York are like parks everywhere, only more so.
Their fortunes rise to spectacular heights, as in the Works Progress
Administration-backed building binge in the 1930s, but can later crash into
equally astonishing dereliction, as in the crime boom and financial bust of the
1960s and 1970s. As with theatrical productions, park issues often open in New
York City and settle in for a long run. People versus cars? Mothers here were
battling then-commissioner Robert Moses over a plan to replace a playground
with a parking lot in 1956. Private-sector intervention in public parks? It was
invented here in 1980 with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy.
Synthetic turf rather than real grass? The city has been using the fake stuff
for a decade and is its biggest municipal buyer.
Adrian Benepe keeps an eye on history and takes the debates
in stride. He has been overseeing New York’s park system, comprising more than
1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities spanning almost 29,000
acres, and the clashes it engenders, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg named him
commissioner in 2002. But Benepe’s connection with the city’s parks is strong
and deep—he grew up playing in Riverside Park and had menial summer jobs in the
department in the dark days of the early 1970s, when the parks were bedraggled
havens for criminals and vagrants.
He was a member of the first corps of rangers established by
then-commissioner Gordon Davis to educate visitors and keep eyes on the parks
after the staff was demoralized and depleted in the wake of the city’s fiscal
crisis. After earning a graduate degree in journalism, Benepe returned to the
Parks Department for a succession of jobs including press aide; first head of
the Natural Resources and Horticulture Division, established in 1984 by
Commissioner Henry Stern; and Manhattan borough commissioner.
In departmental parlance, Benepe’s a “parkie,” and it seems
karmically appropriate that, having cast his lot with the Parks Department back
in the bad old days, he’s now presiding over a program of improvement and
expansion that almost rivals that of his predecessor Moses. Expanding
residents’ access to parks, open space, and recreational facilities is a key
component of Bloomberg’s “2030 Plan,” which seeks to cope with the pressures of
growth, aging infrastructure, and environmental challenges. Since Bloomberg
took office the city has acquired more than 416 acres of new parkland with
thousands more in the pipeline—no mean feat in this built-out landscape—and the
Parks Department is enjoying the biggest expansion of staffing and capital
budgets in decades.
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