These are a few of Bette Midler’s unfavorite things: litter on sidewalks; cars idling curbside; mattresses dumped along woodland trails; a grocery bag snagged in the branch of an elm. It is things like these that make Bette Midler indignant, and Bette Midler is indignant much of the time. Being disgruntled may be a defining feature, those who know her will tell you—as characteristic of the 64-year-old star’s nature as some more familiar items from her résumé. The public knows Midler’s winking persona, whooping laughter, and nasal wisecracks. Her pals know Bette Midler’s harrumph.
At this point, there cannot be many who require introduction to Midler the movie actor; the singer of torch-y anthems; the late night talk-show regular (it was Midler who sang an emotional farewell to Johnny Carson just before he ended his long Tonight Show run); the self-invented diva whose annual Las Vegas appearances have helped make her rich, or anyway rich enough to live in a terraced Upper East Side triplex with limitless views encompassing Central Park and...well, isn’t that Omaha?
A relative few are aware, however, of Midler as an urban do-gooder in the Jane Jacobs mold, a woman whose originally modest forays into civic activism—started in Los Angeles and made official nearly two decades ago when she underwrote a stretch of littered roadside in the Bronx as part of an Adopt-a-Highway program—ultimately led her to create what has since evolved into one of New York’s more successful hands-on urban nonprofits, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP). Although its name has the ring of a high-end housewares emporium, the NYRP is a gritty organization that, in the 15 years since its founding, has stepped in to clean, renovate, and make over parks large and small throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Not insignificantly, most are in what are euphemistically termed “underserved” neighborhoods.
Where many stars select their charities based on potential branding opportunities—signing checks and cutting ribbons and then bolting for the limousine when the photo op is over—Midler focused instead on unsexy projects in areas that were, like much of New York at one time, plagued by drugs and a variety of urban blights.
“Crack was just at its end when I came back,” Midler explained one late spring afternoon, referring to the early 90’s, when she and her family (husband artist Martin von Haselberg and their daughter, Sophie) fled southern California for New York following a series of natural and man-made calamities. “There were floods, wildfires, riots, the Northridge earthquake, and then O. J.,” said Midler. “I decided, ‘I’m done,’ ” The city she returned to was in the depths of a financial crisis and, Midler added, “It had so many problems you almost didn’t know where to start. So I started at the bottom of the barrel, picking up trash in the streets.”
Little more than a year after Midler “adopted” a section of the Bronx River Parkway, she put together the first board of the NYRP, with the aim of reclaiming neglected green spaces. “Trash seemed to me to be symptomatic of larger problems,” she said. “I felt that if I could solve one small problem, perhaps others could be solved.”
Midler founded the NYRP in July 1995, but it was not until four years later that the group began receiving recognition when it joined a coalition of local greening organizations to oppose a civic scheme that sought to auction 114 community gardens to developers. Her organization stepped in and took ownership of some of the most neglected public spaces, and even now it is no rarity, in the Bronx or East Harlem, to happen upon a tidy fenced oasis created or sustained by the NYRP.