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.
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.
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.
New York Restoration Project Million Trees NYC, NYRP’s latest collaboration with the City of New York, will plant 1 million trees throughout the city by 2017. For more info and tickets to the annual Hulaween Ball (Oct. 29), go to nyrp.org or call 914/579-1000.