When Tupper Thomas took over as the administrator of Prospect Park in 1980, the park was in dire straits. The previous year, the park had set a record low for attendance — just 2 million visits in a borough of 2.3 million. (Locals might date the park’s symbolic low ebb to 1976, when a storm blew the statue of Victory in Grand Army Plaza off her chariot.) In 30 years at Prospect Park, as administrator and later as the president of the nonprofit Prospect Park Alliance, Thomas revived the park Frederick Law Olmsted called his “masterpiece.” By the time she retired in 2011, attendance at the park was pushing 10 million. This February, Thomas came out of retirement to become the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, the largest parks advocacy group in the city. This week, we sat down with Thomas to discuss the challenges facing the city’s park system and, after years of retirement, why she'd reenter the fray.
You came out of retirement to take this job. What was it that brought you back?
I spent 30 years of my life in the parks field, and loved it. I care about parks in the city and all over the place — clearly, I really loved working in Prospect Park, or I wouldn’t have stayed there for 30 years. But along the way, I worked with a number of other people who organized a national organization to advocate for parks in cities called the City Parks Alliance. And I ended up giving some talks all over the country, and to cities to speak about their parks and saving their parks. So this is a field that is very near and dear to me.
I’d been working as a volunteer with Holly Leicht, who’s the past director. We were working on different projects together. So I was involved in the Flushing Meadows project and some of the other issues. So she said, “You know, I’m leaving, so if you could at least continue to work on these projects for a while, that’d be great.” And I started thinking, “Gee, maybe this is something I’d like to do for real.” [Laughs.] So it’s been terrific to actually be able to look at my very own city, obviously the borough of Brooklyn being very dear to me, and the rest of them, too. It’s been about six months now.
The issue of inequality seems to touch every area of city policy. Can you speak about inequality in the parks system?
I think one of the biggest issues is that much of the research we’ve been doing in this organization has shown that, in the areas with lower-income communities, it’s often not only parks that are not in as good a condition as they should be, but there’s often not enough park space for the number of people who are there. We would hope to be working with the administration at looking at the areas of Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville which really don’t have a lot of access to good-sized public parks. We’re working with them on studies that will help try to figure out what’s best to do, what are the best ways to fund it, because you want all income people to be able to have good parks and good playgrounds and so forth.
A place like Prospect Park is very heavily used by people from all over Brooklyn. And it is definitely true that when I would go to the community boards in Bed-Stuy or East New York, people would say, “Oh, we all use Prospect Park.” But that’s what they use for a big family outing, twice a year. It’s not like it’s around the corner and they can go there. There need to be more parks and more ways to grow on that in many of these neighborhoods that have problems with asthma, problems with obesity, and other things where parks are really, really important and significant. Hopefully we’ll be able to work on those issues with the administration and be helpful in trying to determine what are the best ways to re-handle those communities in Brooklyn.
Moving to the opposite of the spectrum, last week the New York Times ran a story about the fight over planned developments — which would include affordable housing — near Brooklyn Bridge Park. How does this fit into the larger conversation about parkland equality?
The Brooklyn Bridge Park was a very unique way of being able to fund a park so that the taxpayer did not have to cover the cost of operating the park. It was because it was on state land that it was going to require a lot of negotiation. So I’m not sure if that example will be used in other places easily. But the concept of how you can build a new park and have the park, in some way, be able to cover and pay for its own expenses, either through a special district or other kinds of things, is something we need to look at, because we need more parkland we can all live with. How can we do that without necessarily asking for a raise in taxes? At this point, our organization has pushed and pushed about additional money going into parks.
That’s what I feel is the main issue, that the Parks Department has been under, under, underpaid for many years, like 40 years, longer than I was ever around. So for 40 years, they’ve been cutting back and cutting back very slowly, and now the Parks Department is at a point where if you start adding park property, this is going to be a real problem in terms of funding the maintenance. So the concept of being able to use that housing to fund and pay for the maintenance of that park, which is already a major regional facility — it’s beautiful, it’s accessible, it’s got lots of great amenities, but it’s going to be tough to maintain — it’s a really smart way of adding parkland essential into the city, without costing additional money to maintain it.
There are many different models. In Williamsburg, for instance, they have a special zoning district, which requires developers to put parkland in. The fundraising solution that we’ve had to use in Prospect Park is the most difficult because people say, “Well, I pay my taxes.” It’s not an easy thing to raise private dollars in a public park. There’s got to always be creative thinking.
Over the years, you’ve been very vocal about the parks system being underfunded. Have you noticed a different approach on parks from this administration?
The very first thing that Mayor de Blasio did was the most fabulous, which was to keep the budget the same as last year’s. So last year, the Bloomberg administration had done a full study that said the Parks Department is definitely underfunded, and they put $25 or $26 million into the city budget for parks. And in the de Blasio administration, they’ve kept that money in the budget. So for the first time ever, we weren’t expecting to jump; we were expecting to just stay the same. [Laughs.] It used to be that they’d pull out swimming pools, or they’d pull out this and that, and then everybody has to just go fight to get we already had.
We worked closely with the City Council and the mayor’s office to increase the Parks Department’s budget by another $16 million. And we were able to add staffing into the capital division to be able to catch up on the huge backlog of projects in design. We feel like it was really terrific working with the administration so far. And the majority of this money is going to be put into those lower-income districts, with permanent employment. Once you have it permanently put in the budget, you start to hire real people who can take on some of these jobs and positions. Because the park service has been cut for so many years and so many people are now retiring that it’s going to reach crisis at a certain point — if we don’t start to rehire and rebuild the department.
When you leave this job, what’s the one thing you want to absolutely be able to say you’ve achieved?
I guess I want to say that I have made sure that NY4P will continue on forever. Because I think the idea of a strong advocacy organization is the most important; and the organization is the strongest it’s ever been now. And I think it’s continuing to grow, and so I would hope that I would leave it with a legacy of being a strong and best possible advocate for the people of New York.