by Tupper Thomas,

Administrator of Prospect Park and President, Prospect Park Alliance

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Chattanooga, 1998, a publication from an Urban Parks Institute regional workshop.

I am going to tell you the story of how Prospect Park in Brooklyn changed from a park that was deteriorated and unused, to one that is now used by millions of people every year, and the role that the Prospect Park Alliance had in that evolution.

Prospect Park, a 526-acre park built in the 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is the flagship park of Brooklyn and an extremely important asset to the borough. However, in 1980 Prospect Park was terribly underused and in a state of decay. That year, there were only 1.7 million visits to Prospect Park, which is a very small number when you consider that Brooklyn is a city of 2.5 million people, and that few people in Brooklyn have backyards!

Recognizing the deteriorated state of the park, and in response to community pressure, the city of New York committed Community Development Block Grant funds (CDBG) to create the Prospect Park Administrator’s office.

“We wanted to be taken seriously, as a major cultural entity in the city, like a museum or a botanical garden.”

The city decided to hire me as the administrator of Prospect Park, which was a totally new position, designed to oversee every aspect of the park. I had four main responsibilities: facilitate and share strategies among the maintenance, recreation, and all the other departments; which allowed us to approach the park collectively; initiate a capital program to redesign the park and upgrade its neglected facilities; find ways to get people into the park; and raise private dollars to augment city dollars.

It soon became clear that if we were going to raise private dollars, we had to form a not-for-profit organization to take those dollars in, because the private sector was not likely to give money to the “black hole” of government. So we had to find the bankers, corporate businessmen, and stockbrokers to influence the effort. We wanted folks who could raise private dollars, and make people comfortable that their money wasn’t going to get lost in the city government. And we wanted to be taken seriously, as a major cultural entity in the city, like a museum or a botanical garden.

In 1987, the Prospect Park Alliance was formed as a non-profit in partnership with the parks department and the borough of Brooklyn. The Alliance raises private funds for landscape restoration, capital projects and community programming, as well as overseeing the park’s award-winning volunteer program. I serve as both the president of the board of the Alliance, as well as the administrator of the park for the city. I have a dual role in that I make decisions on the public policy side such as when dogs need to be on a leash or where you can barbecue, and on the private sector side such as where to go for funds, and what kinds of programs we should be developing. It is a partnership that took time and trust from both the public and private sectors to develop.

Our first big project was the renovation of the Prospect Park Carousel, which was closed because of its substantial deterioration. We found the country’s premier carousel restorer in Denver, and each horse was put up for adoption at $5000 apiece. For their contribution, people were noted on a label on the base of the horse, and they got the opportunity to give their horse a name. Although it took time to catch on, we eventually “sold” every horse, and the carousel was beautifully restored.

Since then, the Alliance, in its partnership with the city and with many local organizations, has made substantial progress in restoring Prospect Park. For example, we now have an endowment of $1.2 million to help with the maintenance and restoration of the Woodlands. Just 250 acres, it is the only forest we have in Brooklyn, and as a result, it is very important to us. We launched a major outreach program to get the surrounding neighborhoods involved in the Woodlands restoration project. We have also used archival photographs to reconstruct the areas that were so denigrated that the original design was not apparent.

“When people come to the meetings, they exchange a wealth of ideas about their neighborhoods in addition to ideas about Prospect Park.”

The Alliance has just completed its first strategic plan with strong community involvement. Our Community Committee, which is now made up of 80 organizations – you cannot join as an individual – makes sure that the city continues to support our efforts and to hold up its end of the bargain. The Community Committee has become an important mechanism to discuss the role of Prospect Park in cultural programming, education and future use. When people come to the meetings, they exchange a wealth of ideas about their neighborhoods in addition to ideas about Prospect Park. It is as if parks are a safe place politically, a place where people can talk about lots of other issues. The Community Committee also effectively talks to our elected officials about the importance of funding for all the parks in Brooklyn.

There is nothing better than large groups of volunteers, as they are your spokespeople. We launched a totally new type of volunteer program in which we asked community members to become park greeters. These volunteers go to major park entrances and give out information, or a garbage bag, or they tell people about programs they might be interested in. Since these are local neighborhood folks who live near that entrance, they recognize people, and they hear and see what is going on. Their feedback has been invaluable. We have also had many volunteers from corporations, whose enthusiasm and experience has increased the level of contributions through word of mouth. We have happily discovered that volunteer employees help corporations give more.

“Involving the community in the planning and implementation effort is not only wise, it is necessary for success.”

My final words of advice for anyone considering building a conservancy or alliance in order to administer a park and raise private funds is that this process is difficult. However, involving the community in the planning and implementation effort is not only wise, it is necessary for success. It took us 18 years, but I believe this is in part because we were one of the first, and now there are models to copy. It is something you have to believe in, and be committed to and more importantly, you have to get both the public and private sector to be committed, and flexible. But it is a lot of fun.

Photos: copyright Prospect Park Alliance

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