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Editorial: Tupper Thomas’s sad legacy

Prospect Park Administrator Tupper Thomas. She knew.
Photo by Tom Callan

Last week’s news about the retirement of Tupper Thomas after 30 years of running Prospect Park was a sad day for anyone who cherishes our limited open space.

In her three decades of service, Thomas proved that single-minded focus, steely determination and well-forged alliances can turn around any situation.

But therein lies the tragedy.

So before the rest of the city, starting with the increasingly non-critical New York Times, starts spending the remainder of Thomas’s tenure penning paeans, we’ll provide a little balance.

Yes, when Thomas took over day to day oversight of the park in the 1980s, the place was a shambles, a victim, like so many things in those days, of municipal neglect. There was a Parks Department with a mandate to run the city’s open space, of course, but that agency failed.

Out of that failure came the Faustian bargain offered by the Tupper Thomases of the world: put our struggling public spaces under quasi-public control, set aside some of the normal rules, raise private money from rich people, and we’ll make sure wealthy neighborhoods have a suitable backyard.

Yes, Thomas was indefatigable and seemingly incorruptible. And she was well liked by the very people who should have been doing the job better in the first place. Those personal relationships gave Thomas a level of control that should have simply remained in the hands of officials and politicians who are, at least on paper, accountable to the voters, not their donors.

That’s why we have traditionally been leery of such public-private partnerships. If the city would just do its job, our parks would not need people like Tupper Thomas. Indeed, there would also be no need for business improvement districts or agencies like the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, which are motivated by economic expansion for condo developers, not open-space construction for the public.

Taxes would go into the general fund to maintain our open spaces, and the rich would pay their fair share to the taxman — not get a break so that they can dole out donations to the parks of their choice.

And that is the sad legacy of these public-private “partnerships.”

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