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Green shoes to fill — Prospect Park’s Tupper Thomas retires

The Brooklyn Paper

Those shoes are big, green and hard to fill.

The city is undertaking a nationwide search to replace retiring Prospect Park administrator Tupper Thomas, who spent the last 30 years turning the park from a once-great urban oasis marred by syringes, graffiti and crack vials into one filled with dog runs, bucolic green meadows, millions of visitors and … the occasional crack vial.

Thomas, 65, joked that her successor’s resume will have to be much more impressive than hers when she landed the gig back in 1980.

“If I’d been offered today’s job [of park administrator] when I was 35, I wouldn’t have been qualified,” she said. “I grew into it.”

Now she’s leaving the biggest power — and park — vacuum since the retirement of Robert Moses.

Finding a replacement will be difficult because of Thomas’s achievements, which restored Olmsted and Vaux’s 19th-century vision of a natural haven of rolling hills and wooded areas, a vision that had been lost in the fiscal crises of the 1970s.

Today, the park is a vibrant public area considered the heart and lungs of Brooklyn. Many believe that Thomas’s indefatigable effort actually stopped the rotation of Olmsted and Vaux in their respective graves.

“I wanted to make sure people from every income level and every culture felt welcome in the park,” Thomas told The Brooklyn Paper on Tuesday. “And I feel we’ve done that.”

It’s certainly true that during Thomas’s three-decade tenure, the park has gone from 1-1/2 million visitors annually to nine million — including one regular visitor who was there every step of the way.

“Tupper came to our borough as a shy and retiring small-town Minnesotan, but quickly became a real Brooklyn character with ‘chutzpah,’ ” said Borough President Markowitz. “[She] successfully transformed our 526-acre ‘green’ marvel into a model upon which all urban parks are measured.”

Others praised Thomas for coming up with off-leash hours for dogs — an idea that eventually became popular throughout the city.

“The park was horrible, you used to risk your life going into the park,” said Tony Chiappelloni, the president of the dog advocacy group, FIDO. “The only people that went in were dog walkers and crack addicts. She saw that once people went in with the dogs, others would follow.”

One key to Thomas’s success was the establishment of the Prospect Park Alliance in 1987, which opened the door to money from corporations, grants, and wealthy residents along the park — especially on Prospect Park West.

“For many years the city came in and ‘fixed’ a lot of things, but there was no maintenance, no programs,” Thomas said. “We had to stop this horrible spiral of ‘fix and drop’ — having the ability to bring in private dollars … was great.”

And Thomas is still on the hunt for those private dollars — $20 million of them — to secure the remaning funding for the Lakeside project, which involves new skating rinks and a more natural look for the eastern shore of the lake, before she steps down in January.

Thomas was a fundraising and marketing giant, adding events such as an annual ball, but if there was one knock on her, critics say she is a bit slow to respond to negative news inside the park, as with last year’s reports of tardy park clean-ups after busy weekends or this year’s reports of dumping of animal parts and ritualistic slayings near the lake.

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trace from Park Slope says:
Tupper Thomas was not shy and retiring in the LEAST - I find that characterization offensive. She was a tough cookie, I was there in 1980. tough, focused, and a lot of fun..but shy and retiring or naive? NOT!
And Prospect Park in 1980 was vibrant and filled with picknickers, bikers, dog-walkers - the concerts during the summer were packed - it may be better now, although I don't really see it - the park is tired and overused now, and was tired and overused then.. but it was tons of fun, a great place to be and work, in 1980, and remains so today..
everyone likes to see progress, and has a memory about five years long..
I am going to start the hundred year oral tradition of the history of the park - otherwise, ridiculous things like calling Tupper Thomas shy and retiring, will live on ..It is just wrong, inaccurate..
April 7, 2010, 7:36 am
Matthew Parker from Bklyn Heights says:
Thank you Tupper Thomas for your years of dedicated service that turned Prospect Park around. I was born near the Parade Grounds in 1966 and remember the poor state of the park in the 70s and 80s.

Tuppper was fundamental to turn things around so that Prospect Park is the jewel of Brooklyn once again.

And to NYC dog owners: Tupper (with Parks Commissioner Henry Stern) is the godmother of the NYC Parks 9pm-9am Off-leash Hours policy. If it wasn't for Tupper (and Commissioner Stern) and the Parks Commissioners that have come since, we likely wouldn't have the 89 parks in all five boroughs where dogs and their owners are allowed to be off-leash in certain designated areas with designated rules. More information here: www.nycoffleash.com

Thank you Tupper! You leave an impressive career legacy.
April 7, 2010, 9:04 am
Jerry from Park Slope says:
@trace,

Don't you know by now that anything that comes out of the mouth of Marty Markowitz is both offensive and untrue?

Thank you, and mazel tov, Tupper -- you're a marvelous Brooklynite through and through!
April 7, 2010, 10:48 am
Richie Rich from parkslope says:
Horrah, she was not effective at all.
April 7, 2010, 11:27 am
alpankin from downtown says:
the park is nothing more than a BBQ dump used by people without any sanitary habits..the behavior was encouraged by a blind eye by administrators as to what was going on.she should have retired years ago...look at the condition of the fences surounding the park, they haven't been repaired in fifty years. tractor trailors are permited to park on the flatbush ave side of the park overnight, where was the park supervisors? absent...
April 7, 2010, 8:38 pm
John from Prospect Heights says:
Tupper Thomas is why the park is being run into the ground.
The die off of animals in and at the lake is normal.
1. The amount of garbage in and at the lake is normal.
2. The public drinking in and at the lake is normal.
3. The irresponsible fishing in and at the lake is normal.
4. The amount of dumping from barbecuing in and at the lake is normal.
5. The non-response from the park in and at the lake is normal.
April 8, 2010, 9:56 am
Glenn from Park Slope says:
The Prospect Park Alliance is the organization that is responsible for the lack of care lakeside.
The head of the Alliance was quoted as saying, that it is common that animals die after the winter thaw, when it begins to warm up. What a load of double-talk.
The lake is filthy and unhealthy for the animals.
April 9, 2010, 11:03 am
Ron from Prospect Heights says:
Prospect Park is a city park (not Ms. Thomas' estate) and yet the Alliance is not held accountable for the lack of care and poor conditions that continue to undermine our visits to the park.
She has stripped the workers of their dignity, by allowing all forms of abuses to go unenforced inside the park.
April 16, 2010, 11:11 am
Liette from Kensington says:
Give me a break the park is a mess. There is trash and the remainders of people's BBQ all over the meadows it scars the earth. The steps by the concert grove has been broken for over a decade and there are various monuments that have been left in ruins. Tupper Thomas has allowed the park to become a disgrace to Brooklyn. There are less garbage cans than in years pass. there are disguarded condoms along paths, fishing wire and hooks along parts of the lake. People have been allowed to break the law and BBQ and start fires anywhere in the park and just leave their trash where ever they see fix. Dogs are not allowed off leash till after 9pm in poorly lit areas leaving us to deal with the huge rats in the park.
I am in the park every day walking my dog and it makes me sick how bad she has allowed the park to get. They keep asking for money for the new skating rink and lake side project they can't even keep the park clean and safe for our families. I would rather they fix up the WWI monument which has had 2 bronze plates with our fallen heroes ripped off it and has never been replaced in over the decade that I have lived near the park.
She should be ashamed of herself patting herself on the back. You need to stop doing fluff pieces and open your eyes to how disgusting of a park she has allowed Prospect Park to become.
May 7, 2010, 7 pm
Glenn from Prospect Heights says:
Prospect Park may not be perfect and pristine, but it is extraordinary, with a thriving natural environment and a vibrant community, and Tupper Thomas is to be congratulated for her efforts to make it happen. Tupper and the staff and board of the Prospect Park Alliance have struck a good balance between the often conflicting demands of community, preservation, and the need to raise money to support the park. When I look at Prospect Park, I see Brooklyn's last forest rejuvenated, I see Olmsted & Vaux's historic intent thoughtfully rededicated, I see a dedicated staff who use our limited resources wisely to keep the park well-maintained and I see decades more work to be done. I hope we are lucky enough to get a new administrator for Prospect Park who is as passionate and dedicated as Tupper.
May 25, 2010, 12:44 pm
Steven Warren from Windsor Terrace says:
I don`t know anything about the actual costs of maintaining the park. I grew up in Park Slope, and this park has been my oasis all my life. It`s gone through the good and the bad, mostly now it`s good. Maintenance is spotty, areas have been neglected, but I really don`t know how or why. New leadership is necessary: Ms. Thomas` decision to sign-off on the geese extermination is testament to that, and it seems to me that the park is either underfunded or perhaps the private donations have dried up. I really can`t say with any particular knowledge. PP is Brooklyn`s last real wildlife preserve. It serves over 9 million people per year. Messes will happen, people will continue to be neglectful and disrespectful. New rules re: fishing and BBQing need to be put into place and strictly enforced. As a member of the public, I can`t pretend to fully understand the ins and outs of Park administration. I can only see the results. Let`s hope that the next version of the Alliance will take this park closer to their hearts.
Aug. 25, 2010, 10:33 am

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