New York’s public spaces, especially its parks, have come a long way since then. The most obvious success, of course, is Central Park, on the verge of becoming a dustbowl when activists of the 1970’s stepped in to assist the city’s burdened parks department in preserving Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s 843-acre masterpiece. Few visitors to this 19th-century creation are likely to stop and contemplate that the ornaments of Olmsted and Vaux’s rustic folly—its magnificent trees—have reached their maturity only in recent years. Similarly, after decades of struggle, the poetic High Line Park was finally realized in 2009 and now stretches for half a mile in lower Manhattan, great swaths of tall grass undulating along walkways designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations (with architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro) atop an old elevated train bed within sight of the Hudson.
It is sometimes hard even for a lifelong New Yorker to recall the time when the city’s smartly manicured public parks were crammed with trash and were more likely sites for drug deals and homeless encampments than Ultimate Frisbee or beach volleyball. As recently as the late 1990’s, parks in neighborhoods like East Harlem or Inwood or the South Bronx—places that somehow failed to benefit from the wealth created by great market surges—remained blighted and scary. “The garbage was 12 feet high in some of these places before we cleaned them,’’ said Midler, who was not exaggerating. “It was like, ‘Don’t go in there, you’ll get killed.’ ”
Many city dwellers, Midler pointed out, animatedly circling an armchair in a triplex that could serve as a flash card for The New York Dream Apartment, “live in rooms that are small, with neighbors on top of each other.’’ It may seem contradictory but parks are often the only place to find privacy and some peace. Yet what if there is no peace to be found? What if, as I discovered in the early 90’s, when reporting in the South Bronx, you go out to a park one bright morning and bumble into the middle of a shooting set off by a drug deal gone wrong?
That experience, a novelty for me, was nothing new to inhabitants of Mott Haven, a particularly benighted section of the Bronx, where a combination of intravenous drug use and HIV infection resulted in an average life expectancy one might have associated with Calcutta and not a neighborhood just a short hop by subway from Times Square.
It was on exactly that kind of neighborhood that Midler focused her efforts, and the result is places like Swindler Cove. Cupped along a shoreline bend of the Harlem River in upper Manhattan, this seven-year-old, five-acre park was once a launching point for racing sculls (and, according to dubious legend, a bootlegger’s depot during Prohibition).
By the time Midler showed up toward the close of the 20th century, Swindler Cove’s paths and shoreline were so choked with abandoned appliances, automotive debris, and other detritus that even the prostitutes who had occasionally plied their trade there had moved on. In collaboration with New York City and the State, Midler and her group cleared trash, hauled out tons of junk, cut trails, planted specialty gardens and introduced cultural amenities including a garden for children and programs in horticultural education. A boathouse built there was the first rowing facility constructed in more than a century on the Harlem River, which was once lined with yacht and rowing clubs.
Midler also attacked the notoriously spooky High Bridge Park, in Harlem, as well as Fort Washington Park and Fort Tryon Park, a glorious ridgetop landscape surrounding the Cloisters, where the Metropolitan Museum displays some of its medieval treasures, including the Unicorn Tapestries. Like so many other city parks, Fort Tryon was a scruffy and menacing place, overgrown and poorly lighted, its woodland paths worn bare by people whose purpose in frequenting them was not to watch birds.
On a recent afternoon, as the close heat of summer slowly released its grip, I got off the A train at the 190th Street station, hiked up a hill to Fort Tryon Park, and wandered the trails that were cleared and opened with the help of Midler’s group. That day I happened upon a jolly wedding party as the bride and groom, immigrants respectively from England and Russia, posed for photos; and a group of young men launching themselves into parkour moves off the bronze railings and granite walls; and then—could one make this up?—a cloud of butterflies.