Or, how to screw up a Really Nice Public Space
Or, the end of Washington Market Park as neighborhood park

[Damn. I wish I could have thought of a B-word equivalent to “park”.]

It’s Adrian Benepe’s watch; when things are wrong, it’s his fault. There is much of which to complain; here’s the background.

Washington Market Park

A long time ago (well, 25 years or so, anyway), before the real estate brokers arrived, Tribeca was still the entire upside-down triangle of Manhattan below Canal Street, and the area more or less contained within Canal Street, Church Street, Chambers Street and West Street was the Washington Market district. Starting in the very late ’60s, and for many reasons, the area began a redevelopment train that paralleled that of SoHo, about 10 years behind it. There were important differences: The Washington Market district has a three-tower, early-’70s middle-income housing development at its core — Independence Plaza (North — but South was never built).

Parks? In this part of town? Only a tiny triangle for folks having a sandwich at lunchtime.

Neighbors came together, ramrodded through a conversion of the abandoned space along Greenwich Street from Duane to Chambers. This empty lot was fenced, modestly landscaped and otherwise fixed up with help from all sorts of politicians but it really was a neighborhood initiative. The park was operated by the Washington Market Community Park, Inc.; its board was elected by people living in the neighborhood, from people living in the neighborhood — thus a completely representative body. Funding was secured by subvention from another lot’s lessors, who had a parking lot there.

When the city finally finished building Borough of Manhattan Community College, the neighborhood again acted forcefully through its elected, representative bodies, to keep the college from taking over the park territory altogether; the college got its access spaces, and the community got a smaller, but prettier park — still under neighborhood control.

None of this involved the Parks & Recreation Department.

That changed under good-government spesh Henry Stern. “For its own good,” “to assure that the temporary park should be permanent”, then-Giuliani appointee Stern took over the park. Almost immediately, things changed. The park was enlarged; a million dollar surplus from the maintenance fund was used to expand the kiddie-play area, and eliminate the park’s monumental (though rarely used) main entrance, with its sculptures from the old Penn Station, its commemorative stone and its hand-made wrought-iron gates. Parks Dept. staff replaced the locally recruited staff; management was committed to the supervisor of the esplanade in Battery Park City. His policies have continued unabated under Adrian Benepe, who succeeded Stern as part of Boss Bloomberg’s reorganization.

The result was a park one Parks Dept. supervisor has admitted to be a gem. It is, nevertheless, a park about which Parks Dept. staff bitch and moan, and for which they exhibit limited care.

  • Washington Market Park lacks big wide gates through which Parks Dept. trucks can pass; the largest vehicle that can enter the pocket-size park is a golf cart. It appears the Parks Dept. staff scratches its collective head over this; it is an inevitable complaint of their staff at public meetings; heaven forfend Park Staff should actually carry things in by hand?
  • The park has lots of trees; they are so overgrown that one independent urban arborist has taken his oath they are all pretty much diseased to the point of dying. Certainly, when in leaf, the trees in the park create a dark, foreboding environment in well over half the area. The Parks Dept.’s own experts admit that the trees are overgrown and they expect to get to that Real Soon Now (the current enthusiasm, however, is a scheme to more effectively reseed the lawn). In the meantime, they have lopped off a branch here and there, haphazardly, when it was overhanging some seating (the nannies were upset when birds sitting in the branches pooped; that the nannies should move their asses elsewhere was apparently just not on).
  • When the old plumbing for the sprinkler system died, Parks Dept. staff ripped it all out. In the process, they also ripped up pathways in the garden area. The resulting improved, Parks Dept. approved system included paths with missing flagging and two large, two-cubic-foot permanently bolted boxes containing valves — but no spigots for gardeners who wanted to water their plants their way. [Interestingly, the supervisor from Battery Park City didn’t even know about the permanently bolted boxes and missing spigots. He is, we are given to believe, a superior supervisor with lots of departmental commendations.]
  • Parks Dept. staff on site are — let’s be kindly — haphazard in their duties. On Christmas Eve, for example, the park was not properly closed. It was not closed at dusk; it was not closed at midnight. Apparently, the staffer charged with doing that decided to go home early; he claims to have called his supervisor, who was to have sent someone by to close things up — it wasn’t his job. Apparently it wasn’t anyone else’s, either. In fact, it was nice to go into the park at midnight; the twinkling lights on the Folly were charming and the whole effect of the barren trees and open lawn was fairy-like. But that nothing untoward happened is simply a matter of chance, and that demonstrates piss-poor (technical term…) management.

It appears that greatest of all the crimes and omissions for which the creators of Washington Market Park are guilty is the absence of an in-the-park toilet. In the last quarter-century, no one has greatly missed an in-the-park loo; the college is just up the stairs from the park (I timed it; about a 45 second walk) with facilities available to park users. This is part of the agreement from when the college was being built. Some mommies-with-clout — notably, Community Board leader and supposed councilmember-wannabe Mrs. Bruce Menin has said that her wee lamb has had accidents trying to make that extra 45 second trot (one suspects potty training problems, not covered in a law school curriculum) — really want this new potty. So does the Parks Dept. staff. What is a park without a badly built, badly maintained, smelly, dangerous toilet?

Not only does the Parks Dept. want this john really really badly. It wants to put it in the one location that is farthest from sewer and water utility lines. It wants to put it in the the one area that remains that is unambiguously not a child’s-playground area, the one part of the park that remains clearly for adults, the one place where folks can sit without having some badly supervised and ill-disciplined child kick a soccer ball at them, or squirt them with oversize super waterguns. This will reduce the actual usable space for gardeners in that area by about 20 percent when the job is done — after at least a year of no access at all so Parks Dept. contractors can rip apart the only park entrance, rip out the ornamental landscaping (allowed to decay under Parks Dept. staff “maintenance” in any case), cut down three particularly handsome trees and so on, so a backhoe can be run in to dig the sixty or eighty foot trench needed for sewer and water lines (the Parks Dept. contractors do not employ ditch diggers, so it seems).

Interestingly, when asked why a location closer to sewer and water lines, involving less disturbance and sacrificing three of the overgrown trees that are admittedly in poor shape, Parks Dept. staffer Bob Redmond, his landscaper and his toilet architect had no answer.

Who wants this toilet? We’ve mentioned Julie Menin, whose offspring suffers from potty-training issues. There is Nelle Fortenberry, a newcomer to the neighborhood, who has revived the Friends of Washington Market Park (“FWMP”); this is a local club of people who are interested in the park and its use. It is the successor to an earlier FWMP group, which sort of flagged, but was never properly dissolved (as I understand it, this is causing problems for the new club, as the IRS Exempt Organizations office wants to make sure that funds the old group might have held were not just pocketed — a serious problem for a charitable group…).

What FWMP is NOT — whatever it may like to believe or claim — is a successor to the old Washington Market Park, Inc. board. The board was elected by people in the neighborhood. Agreed, there was not a lot of competition for the slots; the board worked very hard and those who were interested were just barely enough to do the job. But elected it was, and therefore representative according to the meaning of the act. FWMP under Mrs. Fortenberry is a club; she has made this clear on several occasions, explaining that anyone interested in joining FWMP may write the board a letter applying for membership, and the board would act on that. This is not a procedure consistent with being a representative body — except, of course, as representing the interests of its own (I believe, sixteen) members. Or, most of ’em — I have attended several meetings and discern several elements that do not necessarily share Mrs. Fortenberry’s views of things.

As for the rest of the neighborhood? The evidence is hardly definitive, but it is interesting that Mrs. Menin, chairing a Community Board meeting which should have approved the Parks Dept.’s new-jakes plan and design (which had already had a supposedly favorable hearing) was compelled to recommit the plan to the Tribeca committee. The Tribeca committee, after an extensive presentation from the Parks Dept. staff, and an impassioned plea from Mrs. Fortenberry and several of her stanch supporters from the FWMP club (but also opposed by other members at the same meeting…). A number of residents — on the committee and as observers permitted to speak to the committee — took the view that, at the very least, the Parks Dept. plan showed a lack of clear thinking, prudence and so on. To this, the best answer the Parks Dept. staffers offered was the irrelevant, but we have spent so much time and if we don’t get this done now, we’ll lose our budget commitment. The Tribeca committee held the matter over and did not pass a resolution to the Community Board for action.

My neighbors seem to think that the new jakes is not all that useful or desirable. Most of my neighbors — almost all of them having lived here for decades, many of them original contributors at least in a small financial way to the original park — think that this is just one more nail in the neighborhood-park coffin, sacrificing that concept to the kiddie-playground concept that originated with Henry Stern and embraced by Adrian Benepe and enthusiastically espoused by Parks Dept. staff.

Is This a New Problem?

It’s useful to notice that this riding-roughshod over neighborhood interests seems to be usual Parks Dept. form.

When a wealthy chap left a pile for lower-Manhattan improvement, the Parks Dept. snaffled it to rebuild the greatly decayed Columbus Park, which separates Chinatown from The Tombs — the city’s criminal courts and downtown holding prison. That the park had been allowed to decay in the first place is evidence of the lack of Chinatown’s political influence. The rebuilding of the park has included seating that is often unused (neighborhood people find the ornamental rocks uncomfortable, according to one ASLA report; the seating areas do not seem useful for the way neighborhood people form groups; one notices people who might be using the park choosing instead to set up ad hoc seating areas). The grass field — in poor shape — was replaced with astroturf, to the great distress of just about everyone in Chinatown (Tai Chi practitioners want real grass; community groups want something that can handle seating and pavilions; &c.); the only people who seem to like the new astroturfed ball field are other city employees (hmn — one bureaucracy serving another?…). Is the result better? Of course; the old Columbus Park was positively dangerous. Is it a park that serves the neighborhood well? Not according to many neighborhood leaders. Is the Parks Dept. happy with the outcome? Yup. Is there a lesson here? Yup.

Washington Square has been a center of Village life for generations. It is the scene of uncountable “New York Image” movies (my favorite has Robert Redford learning to unbend in “Barefoot in the Park”). This is the Village — before real estate weenies invented an East Village, when there was only the village and it was a destination, with a lot of grit as well as a lot of charm — a place that caused the Rector & Churchwardens of Trinity Church to sell off the Rectory to NYU, lest clerical children be exposed to some of the grit…. It is now to be sanitized. Trees that give shade to park goers are to be sawed down (admittedly, taking away favorite spots for soused NYU undergraduates to deploy their pizzles). The fountain is to be moved and made less a meeting place and more ornamental, and directly in line with the park’s signature triumphal arch. Apparently, NYU applauds the size changes and tree removals as consistent with the need for a bigger place to hold NYU commencement ceremonies.

Given that Villagers have been able to hold this off for two or three years, that only a city judge, whom some have deemed “boughten”, was able to clear the way for Parks Dept., er, improvements to commence, we can reasonably assert that the folks in the neighborhood think this plan a poor one, detrimental to the neighborhood use of an important and historical park. One can only hope the workers who dig up the yellow-fever victims down below will find the disease still catching — sort of a curse of the mummy thing.

In short, the Stern-taught, Benepe-led Parks Dept. rolls merrily along, enforcing its view of what makes a good park, with no regard for those who use the parks.

What does Adrian Benepe Think?

This is a complex question; it resolves to two questions, at least: What kind of response does Adrian Benepe make when taxed with his department’s failures? What sort of thinking is going on, if any?

When taxed with the issue of the new jakes, this was Commissioner Benepe’s reply:

The Parks Department, Friends of Washington Market Park and the community have been working together to find a proper space to construct the comfort station. All community members have a right to voice their opinion during the community board meetings, which discuss the comfort stations. The Washington Market Park Board also conducted open meetings to discuss this issue. The sites that were chosen for the placement of the comfort stations have been discussed, with additional input from our design, architect and capital projects division. We chose the site that will case the least amount of interruption and is as the most feasible for park users.

The Washington Market Park Board has been a great asset, both for the park and for the Parks Department. The board offers opinions on issues such as that you described, and also organizes exciting seasonal events for the enjoyment of the community.

Adrian Benepe assumes the Community Board represents the community; this is true to a limited extent. It is not a representative body, since it is appointed, not elected. It hears from the community at large only to the extent the appointment process succeeds in securing a representative group. Community Board 1′ s Tribeca Committee includes a good sample of Washington Market neighborhood residents; that committee, after hearing from various groups, including the Parks Dept.’s team, was clearly not convinced, was clearly not favorable to the new jakes as sited and as proposed by the Parks Dept..

Community members have voiced their general dissatisfaction with the new jakes as a concept and with the proposed, both in the fora approved by Adrian Benepe and elsewhere (notably, in letters published in The Tribeca Trib and Downtown Express). One such letter (http://www.tribecatrib.com/pages/letters.htm) reads:

… more of Washington Market Park should not be devoted to children and share his dismay that a neighborhood park has changed to a kiddie playground.

The gardeners who for so many years have lovingly tended their plots do not deserve to be pushed aside for either a kiddie garden or a public toilet. Toddlers and grade schoolers don’t have the attention span or commitment for gardening and a public toilet would certainly be inviting to both vagrants and, even worse, to predators.

Gone is the opportunity to quietly sit in the park, listen to my iPod or read. The noise level doesn’t allow.

There is no Washington Market Park Board. Period. Adrian Benepe’s reliance on an organization that ceased to exist in any real form with the tranfer of Washington Market Park to Parks Department ownership is grounded either in ignorance or deliberate falsification of fact to suit Parks Department PR flackery needs to appear responsive to public interests.

The corporate opinions of Friends of Washington Market Park are those of 16 people who have constituted themselves under this name and are now seeking to wrap themselves in the legitimacy of the old Washington Market Park board. Indeed, and in my presence, this group has been dismissive of views voiced by some of its members; on this particular issue, the member whose voice has been ignored is the one person in the group who has a well-defined constituency (gardeners) and the one person in that group whose constituency will be materially and permanently altered by the Parks Dept.’s high-handed imposition of this new jakes.

A toilet is a toilet (or jakes, or loo, or henry, or crapper — or outhouse, which this clearly is, whether connected to sewer and water utilities or not). It is not a “comfort station”. Politically correct euphemism is no substitution for truth.

In short, on every single point of fact and in every single interpretation, Adrian Benepe (or whoever wrote this very foolish letter sent over his signature) is completely wrongheaded, mistaken and mysterious. Or if you wish, he’s a bloody liar — either in propria persona or by proxy (since I think I know who guided Benepe’s staff-writer…).

Is there an Underlying Principle?

I believe we can understand what is going on here, by looking at the Parks Dept. and its leaders.

First, keep in mind, this it the department Robert Moses built. Robert Moses was many things (and called many more). He was a man of great vision, certainly. But, vision in this sense entails a set of values as to what is significant and to what degree — a hierarchy of values, certainly. When a person is a visionary whose values are learned from the larger community, such a constellation of values embodies, gives expression to the general sense of things. When a personal vision is imposed on others — as it were, to uplift them, or improve them, and of course, to deny legitimacy to those who cannot or will not submit to that vision — that totality of values damages the social body, violates the social contract, and inevitably leads to a collapse of the society in which such a vision is allowed to arise and flourish.

Robert Moses has proven — at the time, for many people, and over time, to even more — to have been a visionary who captured the upper-class values of his time, of the 1920s and 1930s; the constellation of values he espoused — the Urban Planner view (I deal with this elsewhere at rather tedious length; http://www.jenner.org/djenner/archive/HumanHabitatPageProofs.pdf) came under increasing scrutiny after the second World War, and especially in the 1960s and later. He was a builder who subverted public interest to his own value totality quite handily, gaining the requisite support within government by aiding central government officials in control of local officials and out of government by straightforward patronage of accommodating contracting firms. His public parks programs were generally elitist, and where popular in orientation, were large, complex and never neighborhood-oriented. This has not produced as enduring a legacy as one might expect; many of Moses’s pet projects are now severely reduced, both because they have aged badly (New York does a bad job of maintaining its amenities once built) and because a more neighborhood-oriented approach has supplanted the regional-plan orientation that drove Moses and others raised on the kind of thinking found in Wells’s Of Things To Come.

In short, Robert Moses was a totalitarian. I think that orientation continues to dominate Parks Dept. thinking, not diminished by its leadership, and cordially embraceed by its mid-level bureaucrats and staff. It is for them “the good old days” — the days before Jane Jacobs and effective community leadership. It is a time the Parks Dept. wishes was still here. [Judging from moves to greatly reduce funding for Community Board and other neighborhood- and community-oriented structures, it is a view that pervades New York City government. One should not be surprised after sixteen years of unrestricted bureaucracy under two totalitarian mayors.]

Adrian Benepe is a product of this bureaucratic culture.

Benepe is a very-late-boomer. He missed the hoo-hah of Vietnam; he is post “Wonder Years.” He attended Middlebury College and did a J-school diploma at Columbia University, but did not pursue the carreer. After working for the Parks Dept. as a summer part-timer, he came back around 1980, starting as a Central Park based park ranger. Aside from brief forays into fundraising for the Botanical Gardens and flackery for the Municipal Art Society (arguably, organizations sharing similar value-totalities with the Parks Dept. bureaucracy), most of the last nearly three decades have been spent working his way up through the Parks Dept. hierarchy.

Of course he espouses the Parks Dept. bureaucratic line. He could not do otherwise, given his personal history, short of an event like that of Paul on the road to Damascus. We can be sure he doesn’t beat children and kick dogs; neither have other historically famous totalitarians.