It's a familiar refrain among outer-borough parks advocates: We're getting the short end of the stick because our parks don't have a high-priced address or Olmsted pedigree. Similar cries were heard in the Bronx when the Croton Water Filtration Plant was sited in a corner of the already highway-bisected Van Cortlandt Park, and when century-old Macombs Dam Park was obliterated to make way for a new Yankees stadium: When Yankees president Randy Levine rhetorically asked a Bronx community meeting on his team's stadium desires, "Where do we build?" some in the crowd shouted back, "In Central Park!"
Certainly, it's not hard to find examples of unequal treatment of New York parks: For every pristine Central Park or High Line, there's a distant outpost like Owls Head Park or Seton Falls Park and St. Mary's Park in the Bronx that's badly in disrepair, or a park like Flushing Meadows that's beset by battles over non-park uses. But the contrasting conditions — and encroaching commercial uses — turn out to be more complicated than a simple matter of rich districts getting preferential treatment. New York parks inequalities are real, say parks followers; but they result less from Manhattancentrism than from a complicated mix of budget politics, the economics of private fundraising, and conflicting opinions of just what makes a park "public."
"It's not as simple as outer borough/Manhattan, or high income neighborhoods/lower income neighborhoods," says Holly Leicht, director of New Yorkers For Parks, which conducts an annual study of which parks are the most underserved. "It's much more nuanced." When her group and the city Independent Budget Office looked at parks maintenance budgets, she says, they found that "it is actually pretty evenly allocated among the five boroughs." The bigger problem, she says, is a lack of funds as a whole, particularly in terms of maintenance money: "You have staff going and putting out fires instead of having a dedicated, well-staffed system that's maintaining all parks evenly."
New York's Park Budget
A history of private support for parks—some parks
The New York City parks story, for our purposes, begins in the 1970s, when almost all city parks shared the same condition: lousy. In the wake of the 1970s budget crisis, city parks gained a reputation as dustbowls and havens for crime — it was during this era that, fearing muggers, the city ripped out undergrowth in both Central and Prospect Parks, leading to erosion so severe that an Olmsted-era waterfall in Prospect Park ended up buried under silt for decades.
All this began to change starting in 1980 with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy*, a private non-profit designed to advocate — and raise funds — to refurbish New York's most famous park. It turned out to be perfect timing: With the blocks on either side of the park experiencing the first wave of the city's 1980s gentrification boom, the Conservancy was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars toward renovating and cleaning its namesake park.
The problem, of course, is that — much as public schools in rich districts have come to rely on their own private fundraising efforts — raising money for Central Park didn't do much for the city's other parks. And while city spending on parks maintenance is "pretty well allocated" by borough when the higher usage of centrally located parks is taken into account, says Leicht, Central and Prospect Parks have far deeper pockets when it comes to the capital spending that renovates playgrounds and rehabs cracked concrete paths. Just how much deeper isn't publicly reported: When the city council passed a law in 2008 requiring annual reports on private funds for city parks, the Parks Department responded with a document that gave only general spending ranges, and omitted the Central Park Conservancy altogether .
The Parks Department, meanwhile, has no discretionary capital funds of its own, leaving neighborhood parks seeking major improvements at the mercy of discretionary budgets controlled by their local city councilmembers and borough presidents, some of whom may decide they have better things to do with their slim discretionary budgets. "That definitely leads to a kind of catch as catch can system that ends up having inequities," says Leicht. "You're kind of at the whim of ‘Is this city councilperson committed to parks? Does this city councilperson have enough allocations to hit parks when they have a lot of other needs. In that case, you do get income discrepancies, because in some low-income neighborhoods there's a lot more demands on council money."