A Tale of Three Cities

It’s been a busy year in park news.

In October, billionaire John Paulson announced a $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy, the largest donation in the history of the City’s park system. It seemed to come out of nowhere. In many ways, New York’s most famous park has never been in better shape. The Central Park Conservancy, formed in 1980 by a group of dedicated civic leaders, has been spearheading the restoration of the park for decades. Paulson is a 56-year-old hedge fund manager, a longtime supporter of the conservancy, and a close friend of its president. He currently enjoys a treetop view of the park from his Fifth Avenue residence. It is, in his opinion, the most democratic institution in the City, enjoyed by 40 million visitors a year. To be sure, many of the city’s 1,700 other parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities have a more pressing need for funding and much less powerful backers. But on the whole, the philanthropic gesture is still appreciated.

Meanwhile in Queens, the borough’s flagship park has drawn an unusual amount of attention for very different reasons. Flushing Meadows Corona Park is currently playing host to a bizarre competition for land from three different sports organizations. The owners of the New York Mets plans to build Willets West, a 1.4 million square foot shopping, parking and hotel complex at the northern edge of the park. Across the street, the United States Tennis Association is proposing a 7,000 seat expansion to the National Tennis Center, complete with luxury suites, retail space, more parking, and a major reconfiguration of roads into the park. Finally, Major League Soccer is edging closer to a deal with the city to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in the heart of the park for a new professional soccer franchise. Each organization has been busy advancing their case independently, and with little acknowledgement of the cumulative effect on Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which is one of the few accessible pieces of open space for the densely-populated neighborhoods of Northeast Queens. You can only expect this kind of simultaneous, multi-pronged encroachment of public land to happen here. But this year, it’s been so blatant that it’s actually gotten Queens some major press.

The two parks provide a neat contrast in how private funding can interact with public land. One is buoyed by philanthropy in the name of democracy, and the other becomes a convenient place for developers to build more parking spaces. It plays out about how you’d expect in two boroughs and two parks with starkly different patrons.

The third major park development of the year, however, is more interesting. In Brooklyn, certainly the most talked-about borough of the year, the new public benefactors have started making the urban environment in their own image.

Joshua Rechnitz, an independently wealthy 47-year old, took a sudden step out of obscurity in April by making a $40 million donation to Brooklyn Bridge Park. The funds will go into the construction of an indoor field house that can accommodate facilities for basketball and tennis. But the centerpiece of the project will be a state-of-the-art velodrome for the obscure sport of bicycle track racing. Though coming from a long line of philanthropists, Rechnitz has until recently kept a low profile, and seems genuinely uncomfortable with the spotlight on his wealth. His tremendous donation is in fact informed by a personal passion for track cycling: Rechnitz was an amateur racer in his younger years, and has quietly been looking for the best way to contribute to the sport. “This is new for me, wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, really surprising to find myself doing the things I’m now doing,” he wrote to The Times about the velodrome plan. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to share with my fellow New Yorkers the gift given to me that, indeed, only has any lasting satisfaction or meaningful value when shared with others.”

Popular response to his donation has been mixed. Here is a man who is significantly changing the landscape of New York because of his personal hobby. Of course the velodrome is a frivolous purchase in a city that could use a lot of help elsewhere. But Rechnitz was also spending money that he wasn’t obligated to give in order to fund an improvement of the park that would not have happened otherwise. Are New Yorkers so jaded and demanding now that we need to complain about his altruism? After all, despite whatever personal opinions one might have about his hobby, it is clear that Rechnitz sincerely loves the sport, and does not seem to be driven by narcissism or ulterior motives. Most reasonable people would be sympathetic.

This is about the default reaction to all of the recent developments in Brooklyn. The borough has been transformed over the past few years by the various interests, hobbies, and passions of its newer residents. Incidentally, Rechnitz’s other love besides track cycling is fine art, and he is looking to finance the renovation of a sprawling industrial building into gallery and studio space in Gowanus. The recent transplants, new businesses, and novel cultural institutions have claimed Brooklyn. It is, on the whole, a livelier and more exciting place as a result. Of course, one can easily mock the more frivolous aspects of New Brooklyn, and the way class contradictions stick out like a sore thumb. But how else could it be? Where else can people be young and experience this version of New York? They have a right to the city like the generations before them. And they really are sincerely devoted to their passions.

This is how New Brooklyn justifies itself. Nevermind your background and upbringing; it’s what you do now that you’re here that define who you are. This invites outsiders to judge new Brooklynites based on their behaviors, and many have obliged. But for every whimsical, self-indulgent slacker living in Williamsburg, there are many more who fit the same social stats but none of the stereotypes. Any attempt to identify this group based on what they do is doomed to be petty and superficial.

Rechnitz is a fitting patron figure for this new generation. Born into the great fortune of his grandfather, the investor and philanthropist Robert H. Heilbrunn, Rechnitz grew up biking to public school in Middletown, New Jersey. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, he moved to New York City and fell in love with art and track racing. He lived below his considerable means, and seemed only to spend to finance these interests and make them more accessible for others. In his New York Times profile, his friend calls him “one of the most frugal people I know,” and in the midst of all the publicity from the donation, Rechnitz takes pains to get people to focus on the project and the sport itself rather than his personal background.

It's all pretty illustrative of how cultural capital relates to economic capital, or something like that. Wealth has a long, storied history of trying to cultivate hipness, sometimes with pitiable results. But the two generally go hand-in-hand pretty well. Certainly the cool people get along much better with the moneyed than they do with those who are neither.

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Funnily enough, the only existing velodrome in New York happens to be here in Queens, hidden on the southern end of Kissena Park in Flushing. It was neglected for many years, and then recently renovated, but it still fails to draw much interest from the neighborhood. Sometimes people go there with their RC cars and race them around on the empty track.

The velodrome was built in 1962 by Robert Moses, former Parks Commissioner of New York and an unyielding symbol of elitist, top-down city planning. Today, Moses is roundly vilified by progressive planners for eviscerating the city and putting New Yorkers at the mercy of the automobile. Nevertheless, he built the velodrome at a time when adult bicycling was not popular at all. Moses also happened to be responsible for New York City’s first true bicycle infrastructure – fifty miles of paved parkland roads exclusively for bike riders, including loops through Central Park and Prospect Park, built way back in the 1930s.

The hallmark of Robert Moses’s massive and imposing public projects was that they inevitably served the interests of a select group while providing a marginal benefit at best for everyone else. In his extraordinary system of parks, parkways, bridges and tunnels, there are monumental losses in opportunity costs for the average people of New York. Funds for hospitals, schools, and other needs were systematically appropriated so he could build more highways and more lanes. But it seems that he actually had a soft spot for bikes.

UPDATE 1/10/13: Rechnitz has abandoned velodrome plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park, and is looking elsewhere.