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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

25. THE WHITE PAPER

The Lindsay-for-Mayor offices took over the entire fourth floor of the old Roosevelt Hotel near Grand Central Station. My initial impression of the place was a long dingy corridor filled with cigarette and cigar smoke filled with squads of young men and women rushing from one office to another.

George Lindsay, a tall, balding man with a gentle smile, greeted me in a suite with a half a dozen desks at which staffers were typing away furiously and trying to talk into two phones at once. We retired to a quiet bedroom and he and Gene Becker started to grill me about my idea for the parks paper. Then Bob Price strolled in. Price was almost a parody of a New York "pol," speaking out of the side of his mouth in a distinctly Manhattan accent at machine-gun speed.

"Whatta ya’ intend to do, if we take you on?"

"Make the White Paper on Parks comprehensive," I said. "There are over seven hundred parks and playgrounds in the five boroughs, ten swimming pools, fifteen golf courses. I’ll visit them all, single out key ones where the votes are, describe what stinks and suggest what needs to be done. I’ll contact all the key park lovers in the city -- most of them are your supporters -- get their points of view, find out the park community leaders’ likes and dislikes and put ’em in the paper."

"Will you need a staff?" George Lindsay asked.

I hadn’t thought of that. "Three researchers."

"Make it two," Price drawled. "I want it by early October."

"Sure," I said without any idea what I was doing. I took a frightful risk, as usual.

When I told Rorimer that I would be working for the campaign that March, he was glacial, pointing out that if Abe Beame won which was very likely future relationships between the museum and the city government would be difficult. I thought briefly of pulling out of the campaign but stuck to my rash decision. Overnight I had become a true believer in the Lindsay reform movement, which promised vital changes to the lackluster and exhausted government under Mayor Robert Wagner. Compared to Beame, who looked so flaccid, Lindsay couldn’t lose.

I picked my staff from campaign headquarters -- Peter Ashkenazy, a bright, intensely active go-getter, and Julie North Chelminski, a vigorous and well-organized expert on all parks issues.

I devoured every book on the development of parks in New York City, including the life of abolitionist and parks designer supreme Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux had created Central and Prospect parks. I probed what little the current Commissioner, Newbold Morris, had accomplished and decided he was nothing more than Bob Moses’ poodle. It was said that he called Moses at the beginning of each day to find out what he should do. Morris’ sole accomplishment was keeping the skating rinks in decent shape, since he was a former ace figure skater.

Most of all I researched the life of the still-powerful municipal pro-consul, Robert Moses, who had built a superb parks system in the 1930s that had begun to deteriorate drastically. I secretly admired Moses’ mammoth accomplishments for the city and didn’t buy into the prevailing stereotype accepted as gospel by all parks lovers that he had destroyed the city with his highways and cookie-cutter housing projects. Anyone who had designed the flamboyant and witty Jones Beach was not all bad in my book.

I compiled a dossier on each important park in the city -- hundreds of them -- and especially those with the most citizen complaints. The indefagitible Chelminski accompanied me to each park or recreational center and we’d talk for hours with parks employees. The disaffected crew in Fort Tryon Park filled me with horror stories of mismanagement and destructive budget cutbacks. I met a Parkie who’d been reprimanded for encouraging a citizens’ group to grow flowers in a playground.

The guy who seemed to know everything about the parks system was Arthur Rosenblatt, a young New York City architect. He had designed several parks on the East Side for community groups and considered the people who used the parks to be his clients, not the Parks Department officials. In the mid-1960s no department architect or engineer ever bothered to talk to the folks who used a particular facility. The basic Moses’ design was stamped in every playground -- standard swings, jungle gyms and slides plunked into hard asphalt surfacing and a flagpole, all surrounded by a chain link fence.

I could never understand why the man who had been responsible for frolicsome Jones Beach could have tolerated such cheap-jack designs. To me, they looked like prison compounds. At the entrance to each was a sign with a big "NO" on the left followed by a list of activities that were banned including, I joked, having fun.

Rosenblatt was a gimlet-eyed, balding, proudly Jewish, intensely loyal radically liberal 42-short portly. He boasted that his mother and father were Socialists. He was entertainingly skeptical of the ruling classes and mocked me gently for looking and acting like "Mr. Super-WASP." There wasn’t a crooked or hypocritical molecule in his body.

"Tommy, here’s what to put in this White Paper (by the way, only WASPs would call it a ’White Paper’ and maybe you oughta’ have the part on Harlem -- if you are going to ever go there -- called the ‘Brown Paper’) that parks are for the people and they are the clients, that parks should be fun and challenging and beautifully designed by the hottest architects around today like Phillip Johnson and I.M. Pei and Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and the brilliant young playground designer, Paul Freedberg. Have Lindsay say he’ll hire the best architects in the world to create parks in the worst of slums. Yeah, concentrate on the slums and all neglected parts of New York. Central Park is a treasure, as Olmsted said, ’the lungs of the City,’ and remind people of that, but emphasize the other boroughs. Lindsay’s gotta look like he’s gonna be the Mayor for Staten Island and Queens and Brooklyn first as well as rich Manhattan. You ought to write about McCombs Dam Park and Fort Greene and Mount Morris Park in Harlem. Pledge to put the finest facilities in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Gimme a day or two and I’ll give you a list of the parks that are politically sexy with the names of all the folks in the community groups who use them."

What he sent me became the guts of my parks white paper. I also interviewed dozens of parks lovers, from a member of the City Planning Commission, Elinor C. Guggenheimer, an elegant and vigorous reformer, to parks devotees like Whitney North Seymour, Robert Alpern, Bob Makla of Brooklyn, Barry Benepe, a Manhattan "eccentric" who rode a bicycle all over town, and architects Robert Stern and Norval White. I cut and pasted their ideas and contributed but a few of my own ideas.

The paper was issued to the press on October 8, 1965, and in somewhat stodgy style (I was trying to sound rather like Olmsted) called for a revolution in parks: clean up and modernize all existing parks, put a legion of new ones in the slums, build a series of "vest-pocket" parks in abandoned lots, place "adventure playgrounds" in all new parks, put parks on rooftops, build pools on barges on the rivers, pay Parkies more, boost recreational programs, bring about a harsh crackdown on crime, vandalism and littering with Parkies being given the right to issue summonses, organize a special gang of Parkies to go into a vandalized playground and repair in one day everything broken and come back the next day if vandals hit the park again, beef up police protection, put safety surfacing in every playground, hire outside architects of renown to design and rehabilitate the parks, erect tramways between the highest buildings in town for recreational and touristic reasons, mount jazz concerts in the great parks. In short make all parks beautiful and fun for the first time in a generation.

My paper castigated park encroachments. Two were singled out for special condemnation. Huntington Hartford, the wacky heir to an A&P fortune, had persuaded Mayor Wagner to build a huge restaurant in the park across from the Plaza Hotel. I had Lindsay observe, "Restaurants are needed in Central Park, but not the complex one envisioned by Hartford. I recommend a series of temporary, colorful restaurant kiosks surrounded by tables and chairs where food and soft drinks could be purchased for little money and where conversation and relaxation is encouraged."

The second encroachment I had Lindsay condemn was a memorial for one of his strongest supporters, a playground in memory of the renowned philanthropist Adele Levy designed by the architect and sculptor Isamu Noguchi and to be built in Riverside Park at 102nd Street. I was against it because on a wintry afternoon after a six-inch snowstorm I visited the hilly site and saw dozens of sledders, some continuing to sled after dark holding flashlights in their teeth. When I alerted George Lindsay that I had to condemn the Levy project, he replied, "John says, call ’em the way you see ’em. You’re the big Parkie in this campaign." Bob Price was furious and didn’t talk to me for weeks.

Never in any comprehensive plan for parks and recreation had such sweeping as well as specific suggestions been made. It was far better than the much-heralded State Regional Plan, which had just been issued. It gained considerable press and attracted glowing comments from parks advocates. We got a small flood of calls at campaign headquarters asking what Lindsay would do for specific parks. We quickly printed a supplement with a description of how we’d fix up some fifty parks equally spread across the five boroughs not mentioned in the White Paper. That got more press.

To coincide with the publication, I dreamed up the idea to have the candidate take a helicopter tour of five parks and meet with mothers, kiss babies and shake hands with Parkies and recreation workers. Bob Price gave the green light for the expensive operation. Julie Chelminski and Peter Ashkenazy organized the tour right down to choosing the right mothers with the most photogenic kids, rehearsing sound-bites with them, prepping the parks employees and even passers-by who were taught to say that they’d sure use the park if it were cleaned up and protected.

The handsome, tanned, tall candidate with rolled up sleeves and a dazzling smile ("He’s Fresh and They’re Tired") bounded out of a chopper in Fort Greene and Lower Manhattan and Stapleton and Alley Pond Park and Crotona and jogged over to greet star-struck mothers, awed kids and smiling parks workers. The caper made the front page in every newspaper in town and got top TV coverage.

After this triumph Bob Price persuaded me to quit my job and work full time as a tactical idea man. I asked Rorimer for a leave-of-absence with pay, which he granted. By now he, too, was beginning to believe in the John Lindsay "miracle."

Aided immeasurably by Peter and Julie, I assembled a team of young women wearing attractive uniforms and straw boaters with a "Vote for Lindsay" band to rush to any facility mentioned in news reports as having a problem. I had a couple of artists standing by to make instant posters. Some ceiling material in the Shuttle subway had given way and a bunch of wires was hanging down, making it difficult to get from one station to another. My young women were there in an hour handing out Lindsay flyers and carrying posters proclaiming that John Lindsay would never wait this long to fix this mess. I would dispatch the team to where traffic jams were likely to occur and they promised that under Lindsay to bring about traffic "responsibility." This was particularly effective at rush hour at 59th Street and the Triborough bridges. Every time the team appeared -- and I gave equal time for every Borough -- we got great press.

By the end of October I was put in charge of the phone banks. We started getting two or three times the normal number of calls, asking the candidate’s position on issues. I knew we had won when I answered a couple of dozen, all asking about Lindsay’s positions on gay rights. That might just be the swing vote I figured.

Nancy and I stayed at headquarters drinking and cheering until Abe Beame conceded. She had worked tirelessly on drug rehabilitation issues and had organized a campaign team headed by a noted expert, Dr. Efren Ramirez. Sadly, the drug experts were not asked to produce a white paper -- a major failing -- but they did establish firmly that Lindsay, if elected, would favor the creation of as many rehabilitation programs and facilities as possible.

"I wonder, dear, if he’s going to ask you to work for his administration," Nancy asked when our candidate had won.

"Doubt it. You know I’ve actually never met him -- funny. Anyway, he’ll get some parks star, not a guy who works at a fake monastery and who puts on monks’ robes to sing Gregorian Blues every other Thursday for the tourists in Cuxa cloister. I figure he’ll ask Whitney North Seymour to be the ‘Commish’."

My father called and grumpily offered his congratulations on Lindsay’s victory. He had served as William Buckley’s Finance Chief in his useless and self-indulgent run for Mayor as an Independent, vowing publicly that if he won, he wouldn’t serve.

"I suppose that your Lindsay -- I hear he’s not very bright. . ."

I exploded at my right-wing father, using my best Bob Price from-the-corner-of-the-mouth style. "Is your Bill Buckley bright, for Christ’s sake? For making such a joke of high office?"

"I suppose that this Lindsay will ask you yet to work for him. It will be some low-level position. Don’t be tempted for you have, Jim Rorimer tells me, a bright future at the Metropolitan."

This is chapter 25 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email



 



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