On a midsummer afternoon, I head up a winding hillside trail in sprawling Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, on Manhattan’s far upper west side. Nestled among the trees is a sturdy, steep-roofed cottage that looks like where the witch lives. But there’s no oven inside, only a neatly organized stash of rakes, hoes, shovels, shears, and crates of refuse bags — plus a curious device that looks like a medieval jousting lance.
This cottage, known prosaically as Building D, is the original field headquarters of Bette Midler, not in her familiar capacity as singer, actress, and stage dominatrix nonpareil — as “The Rose,” as “The Divine Miss M.” — but as founder of and chief fund-raiser for the five-year-old New York Restoration Project, the city’s most dedicated hands-on steward of abused parks and other public spaces.
NYRP’s first crew, 12 people strong, headed out of the cottage to begin its daily tidying up of Fort Tryon Park in 1996. The effort has since grown and spread. Today with an annual budget of $2.5 million, three field bases (including Building D), and a command center in midtown donated by Wenner Media (publishers of Rolling Stone), the NYRP sends out up to 50 people every morning to clean, clear, and replant some 300 acres of uptown parkland. (Twenty are permanent employees; the rest are Americorps members and welfare recipients working for their benefits.) Joseph Pupello, president of the organization, estimates that his crews have toted 10,000 tons of garbage from the city’s parks in the past three-plus years. That’s been a godsend to the city’s Parks Department, which has seen its workforce cut from 6,000 in the 1970s to 2,000 today. (Most recently, the NYRP made headlines when it purchased 50 community gardens that had been scheduled for sale to developers by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; of the $1.2 million cash price for the properties, $250,000 came from Midler’s pocket.)
Midler and her husband, Martin von Hasselberg — a sometime performance artist, as well as a Wall Streeter and now film producer — and their daughter, Sophie, moved from Los Angeles back to New York in 1994, determined never to be “earthquaked” again. But, settled in a big Tribeca loft, Midler faced a new source of distress: trash all over the place, even in the parks. She wasted no time in hand-cleaning her own industrial block-front and installing crab apple trees — which had to be planted in giant tubs because of the 19th-century industrial vaults beneath the sidewalk. Determined to do more, she then approached New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and asked what she could do. “He told me that if I wanted to help, that was fine,” Midler recalls, “but not downtown. There were already enough rich stupid white women like me who could save their own parks. He told me to go do the work uptown, where rich people don’t live.”
In New York, individuals normally channel their park philanthropy through the city’s Parks Foundation. But Amy Gavaris, an NYRP landscape architect, explains, “Bette didn’t feel like doing all the work through another organization and losing her identity and autonomy.” Or,as Midler puts it herself, “I just felt that if I didn’t complain to the city or ask for its money, the work would get done more smoothly.”
Midler remembers looking over a high stone wall in Fort Tryon Park, site of the famed Cloisters museum, down what should have been a pristine wooded slope. Instead, she says, “I saw so much garbage stacked up down there that I started to hyperventilate.” The Building D crew now attacks the problem daily. The more athletic among them shimmy down ropes from the top of that stone wall. (That curious jousting-lance device in the cottage — a long, lightweight aluminum pole tipped with three prongs and a small, razor-sharp scalpel at its tip — is actually an instrument, extendable to 60 feet, for removing plastic bags snagged in high tree branches. The prototype was custom-designed for Midler by her husband as a birthday gift; after 16 years of marriage, he knew that his wife would treasure it far more than a fat diamond or a rose-colored Ferrari.)
While Fort Tryon Park suffered from neglect, people never stopped coming to it. On the other hand, nearby Highbridge Park — a steep, 216-acre sliver of forest rising over the Harlem River, named for a magnificent, still-standing Roman-style aqueduct that was built to bring pure country water to the booming city in 1848 — had degraded over the years until it was scorned by all but criminals. In the triage resulting from the city’s financial crisis of the mid-1970s, the cash-strapped Parks Department all but gave up on it. Car thieves made the park their own, dumping the stripped carcasses of vehicles there by the hundreds. Midler’s team didn’t have the heavy equipment to haul wrecked cars out of Highbridge Park — the first step in putting it right — but the Parks Department did, and the NYRP volunteers moved in behind their tow trucks to do painstaking hand cleaning and trail clearing. Then came new plantings, ranging from climbing hydrangea and potentilla to liriope, catmint, spirea, dwarf lilac, and, of course, roses.
A project especially close to Midler’s heart wasn’t exactly a park, but a woebegone cove on the Harlem River, behind a public school. Now called Swindler’s Cove — in memory of the NYRP’s first activities director, Billy Swindler, who died of AIDS — the property is in the midst of a full-scale makeover. The newly clean shoreline now boasts a student-tended vegetable garden and picnic tables, and a magnolia tree planted in memory of Midler’s late mother; it will soon get a pond. Old photographs reveal that this stretch of the river was once lined with ornate boathouses and crowded with recreational rowers; hoping to restore that tradition, Midler sponsors the construction, at a local middle school, of graceful 25-foot Whitehall boats, reviving a local 19th-century design. They’ll be kept in a soon-to-be-built neo-Victorian floating boathouse designed by Robert A.M. Stern. Midler also plans to hire a rowing coach to train low-income athletes, in hopes that they’ll become elegible for college crew scholarships.
I was once stuck in traffic with Midler when her eyes suddenly narrowed on a barren triangle of dirt on a ramp of the FDR Drive. “From visiting Germany with my husband,” she said, “I can tell you that on the Autobahn you’d never see an ugly patch like that. They’d plant the bejesus out of it.” Watch that space.