Returning Prospect Park to the People
Returning Prospect Park to the People
By KAREEM FAHIM - New York Times, 4/5/2010
Drugs were sold at the carousel. Muggers used the cover provided by the park’s shrubs and foliage. One year, near the skating rink, a man was found shot to death, and another year, the acting supervisor of the zoo was arrested and charged with shooting animals.
In the 1970s, Prospect Park in Brooklyn looked more like a crime scene than the pastoral refuge imagined a century earlier by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
As if to advertise the woeful state of the park, in 1976 Columbia, the figure driving atop the arch at Grand Army Plaza, fell over in her chariot, a victim of disrepair.
Four years later, perhaps not fully aware of the mess the park had become, a 35-year-old former city bureaucrat and urban planner named Tupper Thomas answered a newspaper ad for a job as the park’s administrator. She was from Minnesota, knew nothing about parks and even spelled Mr. Olmsted’s name wrong on her application.
“This apple-cheeked young woman came into my office,” said Gordon J. Davis, the former parks commissioner who hired Ms. Thomas. “She looked nothing like a New Yorker, and sounded nothing like someone from Brooklyn. She giggled the whole time. Tupper seemed to have come from the moon.”
Three decades later, Ms. Thomas, who plans to announce her retirement on Tuesday, has become a Brooklyn institution and is widely seen as the park’s indefatigable savior.
Her fans credit her with turning Prospect Park into a worthy rival to Central Park, and for handing a lost treasure of wilderness and recreation back to the people of Brooklyn.
A place that many people shunned has now become the borough’s popular and crowded backyard. “Everyone says the 1940s were the park’s best era,” Ms. Thomas said. “I think this is Prospect Park’s moment.”
Her success can be partly measured in numbers. When Ms. Thomas took the job, fewer than two million people visited the park annually, while today, visitors number more than nine million a year, according to the Prospect Park Alliance. The alliance’s annual budget has grown to $8 million or $9 million a year, up from about $200,000 in 1987.
Adrian Benepe, the current commissioner of parks, citing a different measure of success, talked about the experience Ms. Thomas restored to the park:
“Walk from Grand Army Plaza through Long Meadow into the Ravine, past the rivers and waterfalls, to the Nethermead, and to the lake and the boathouse,” he said. “If you want to understand Olmsted and Vaux, you do that. That was lost,” he said, “that experiential continuum is her masterpiece.”
On Sunday, in the near-perfect weather that a park is created for, Ms. Thomas strolled among the barbecuers and the sunbathers, reflecting on what she called her life’s work. She answered random questions from visitors: how to get to the Picnic House, or where to find an empty bench on a day when most were taken.
She first visited New York during the summer between her junior and senior years at Goucher College, in Baltimore, Md., to volunteer for the mayoral campaign of John V. Lindsay. She lived on the couches of friends in Manhattan. “There was no going back to Minnesota,” she said.
When she returned after college, it was to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a few blocks from the park, though Ms. Thomas, who once worked for the city’s housing agency, rarely ventured there.
When she first started working in the park, Ms. Thomas’s biggest challenge was drawing visitors to a place widely seen as dangerous — even her neighbors questioned her sanity for working there.
She lured dog owners by letting them run their dogs off leash from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. in certain parts of the park. An annual Halloween event drew children, who later asked their parents to take them back to the park.
On Sunday, she stopped at the carousel, one of her first reclamation projects as administrator. An expert from Colorado had repainted the horses, dragons and other animals, and donors paid money to name them. Those in line for the carousel were a snapshot of nearby neighborhoods: Flatbush, Borough Park and maybe Midwood. A balloon man sitting nearby counted his money. The scene clearly pleased Ms. Thomas, who still lives in Crown Heights.
Walking past the Ravine, she noted that it had been the park’s pronounced color line, dividing white residents from Park Slope from black residents who lived to the south and east of the park. And though she said steps had been taken to ease the divide, a recent survey carried out by the park — and a simple look around — suggests that it persists.
Ms. Thomas served four park commissioners and four mayors, and was often overshadowed by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the administrator of Central Park who was an Olmsted scholar and a city planner.
But in many ways Ms. Thomas had the harder task. While Central Park had a natural constituency of donors, including the wealthy residents who lived nearby and Manhattan’s endless roster of corporate donors, Prospects Park’s 585 acres bordered both affluent and low-income neighborhoods. Ms. Thomas’ earliest big-ticket donor, Henry Christensen III, a lawyer, gave $100.
He and Ms. Thomas became partners in the Prospect Park Alliance, the public-private partnership modeled on the Central Park Conservancy that Ms. Thomas counts among her signature achievements.
And though when she first started, she might not have known an “elm from a spruce,” as Mr. Davis put it, she had other gifts. Using surveys that showed where visitors to the park lived, Ms. Thomas prodded Brooklyn’s elected officials to provide money. And she brought landscape architects and designers onto her staff, ensuring the quality of renovations and restorations.
Ms. Thomas said she will leave her post early in 2011 after she has completed raising money for the new Lakeside Center.
Her greatest asset was enthusiasm, said Henry J. Stern, a former parks commissioner with whom she occasionally clashed. “She banged the drum,” he said. “She was a rooter for her park and her borough.”