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Bette Midler's Park Restoration Project

Bette Midler in the garden of the New Leaf Restaurant & Bar, which her New York Restoration Project created in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park.

Photo: Douglas Friedman

I sat on a bench looking across the Hudson toward the green buttresses of the New Jersey Palisades. It was tranquil. Thoughts of the 67-acre park’s low-down past were pretty distant. One could have dropped off to sleep with no fear for the safety of wallet or shoes.

“The number one thing with these places is you have to make them clean and safe,” Midler said. “They have to be used and people have to be unafraid to use them because, if they are afraid, the same people that were trashing the parks in the first place will come back and trash them again.”

To keep people coming back, the NYRP leased a rustic stone stable from the city parks department at Fort Tryon and converted it into a restaurant several years ago. I took a table on the shaded slate terrace of the New Leaf Restaurant & Bar that day and ordered a cold beer and thought about how, in my conversation with her, Midler evoked a series of vivid sense memories from her Hawaiian childhood.

From an early age Midler’s middle-class parents had stressed to their daughters the importance of “giving back,” she explained, an ethos that, not altogether incidentally, is embodied in the ancient Hawaiian concept of pono. To anyone raised on that string of remote volcanic islands surrounded by limitless ocean, the pragmatic underpinnings of pono are far from an abstraction. And if they are, the state motto contains basic instructions for maintaining pono by safeguarding the most precious of resources. “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono,” it reads. “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

When I met her, Bette Midler explained briskly her common-sense approach to parks preservation: “First comes the land and then come the people on the land.” After that comes improvement of that land, in simple ways achieved by whatever means are required. Seeing the city she loved on the verge of dereliction did not move Midler to grieve but to fight. The urge to rescue and rehabilitate is deeply rooted in her, she added. “It’s what I do with music, too—find little pieces and then burnish them so people hear them in a different way.”

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

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