Last week, in the basement of the American Institute for Architects, in a room that looks like a bunker designed by Le Corbusier, an audience waited to hear NYC Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe speak. Benepe is one of this year’s recipients of the Center for Architecture Award, and the lecture was organized as part of The Center’s Architecture Week 2009.
He arrived two minutes early. Handsome, bespectacled, and with just enough hair, Benepe has a golden glow of a man who spends a healthy amount of his time outdoors, in parks.
As Benepe shook hands, Rick Bell, the center’s executive director, waited behind him holding a black “NYC Parks” hat. When Benepe turned, Bell handed him the hat and a silver pen, asking for an autograph. The commissioner took the hat and wrote across the bill, “To Rick—keep it green—Adrian Benepe.”
Benepe has become something of a local celebrity over the course of his thirty years in the Parks Department. It all started in 1973, when a teenage Benepe worked seasonally in East River Park on the Lower East Side, mostly picking up litter and mopping locker room floors. In the decades that followed he held many positions in the department: Director of Natural Resources & Horticulture, Director of Art & Antiquities, and, finally commissioner, when Michael Bloomberg appointed him in 2002.
After a brief, glowing introduction by the chairman of the A.I.A., Benepe took the podium and asked, “Did anyone walk through Washington Square Park on their way here?”
Several hands went up.
“How did it look to you?”
A unanimous “good” came back from the audience.
“Really?” he said, “I saw a lot of trash. And I noticed some illegal advertising.”
“I want to begin,” Benepe said, “by drawing attention to the fact that it is the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival. Much of the city’s urban landscape is owed to the Dutch. There were no parks in New Amsterdam; they had plens. Bowling Green was one such plen and it then became the city’s first public park.”
Benepe talked about the three main eras of park development in the city: He praised Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux’s great urban parks of the 1850s. The City Beautiful movement at the turn of the century, he said, resulted in the first public playground in the city (Seward Park). Benepe was positive on the legacy of Robert Moses, whose tenure as parks commissioner, according to Benepe, succeeded in producing “pleasure grounds for the common man.”
Like most of the city, the 1970s was a dark period for parks.
“This was what the parks environment was like when I became a park ranger. You either had to be crazy or have extremely rose-hued glasses to think it could come back from that.” (He did not say which of these applied to him.)
“New Yorkers don’t have backyards,” he said. “This is a place for them to exercise, but also to contemplate. We want them to exercise their bodies, but we also want it to be a place where people can exercise their minds, to contemplate and do nothing. A park should be a place to be alone, and a place to be in a crowd. And fundamentally, stealing from the Italian, it is a place for <em>far niente</em>, or to do nothing.”
He spelled out the four main goals of the parks department. One is adaptive reuse, like making McCarren Park Pool a concert venue (and, well, now a pool). Two, more facilities for the public. Three, opening the waterfront, particularly the industrial Brooklyn waterfront as a planned “Greenway.” Four, the building of major public recreation venues, which sounded a little like Goal 2.
“The Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island is argued by many to be the most state-of-the art track facility in the world and it is the track on which Usain Bolt broke the 100 meter record,” he said. “We want to encourage the spirit of building great civic facilities for sport.”
Near the end of the event, he said, “People really do respond to beauty and to good design. And as First Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris wisely said, ‘Good design doesn’t have to be anymore expensive than bad design.’ Great creative design enhances great functional designs. These buildings can’t just look good, they have to function.”
“I think we should focus on horticulture. I mean, we’re the parks department right? I really believe flowers have a calming effect on people. I mean, I’ve never seen a fist fight in front of a flower bed.”