The view from Cleo Dana’s 26th-floor apartment has changed a great deal over the years, but the addition of condo buildings rising near the Hudson River is nothing compared to the transformation she’s witnessed in the small park below her.
Dana began to notice the changes at Damrosch Park, a 2.4-acre rectangular plot in the middle of Lincoln Center, in March of 2010. That was the first year that Fashion Week came to the area, after the event was booted from Bryant Park following complaints from neighbors over noise and crowding. Lincoln Center, which operates the park, allowed the organizers of Fashion Week to remove trees, flower planters and benches, and erect massive tents covering much of the space. The Dan Kiley Gardens, named in memory of a famous landscape architect, were essentially destroyed.
“The park that was there before [was] totally decimated and gone,” Dana remembers. “A lot of noise, a lot of trees going down, and I was a bit of an innocent. Everybody believed it was part of Lincoln Center, that they own it – they don’t own it, they manage it.”
Dana started researching, and began to understand what a big deal it was to alter a public park when she discovered that the Parks Department allowed 56 trees to be cut down in preparation for Fashion Week’s tents. At the time, Parks said that the trees were ailing and would have been cut down anyway, and also promised 340 new trees for the park, which never materialized. Dana tried in vain, through filing Freedom of Information Law requests, to obtain copies of the forestry permits the city needs to obtain to cut down each and every tree, and never got them. She kept trying to get information, and was routinely either stonewalled or told that what was happening in Damrosch Park was perfectly legal and allowable. But she soon discovered that, thanks to the state’s Public Trust Doctrine, it was illegal for the city to remove parkland from public use without going through the state first.
“It was used as a money maker ATM for Lincoln Center,” Dana said of what the park became. When it wasn’t hosting Fashion Week or the Big Apple Circus, Lincoln Center advertised the space as available for rentals to host bar mitzvahs, parties, banquets – all kinds of private events that closed the park off to the people.
“They created total chaos in the neighborhood, and they closed off the park from August until the following June,” Dana said. “It was an illegal action. Once they ignored our cease and desist, and Mayor Bloomberg said Fashion Week is good for Damrosch Park, we hired an environmental lawyer,” Reed Super of Super Law Firm.
Dana formed Friends of Damrosch Park and sued the city, but she needed help to fundraise for the legal effort, which is when she turned to her friend Olive Freud, a fellow retired teacher who helms a non-profit organization called the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development. Freud had had some success fighting other battles on the Upper West Side, and she was happy to join the lawsuit and work on raising money and awareness in the community.
“She’s a gung ho activist for the West Side, and she’s on the barricades,” Dana said of Freud. “She made it possible.”
Freud said that when they first began to fight for Damrosch Park, many people, including elected officials, offered sympathy, shared outrage and letter-writing, but that wasn’t nearly enough.
“It’s not only writing a letter, you have to keep at it,” Freud said. “We went to the community board and they wrote a very good letter, to the mayor, to everybody. We went to the comptroller, the borough president, to [then city councilwoman] Gale Brewer – they all wrote letters and all said the same thing, but nothing helped. It wasn’t until we actually took action and we went to a lawsuit [that anything changed].”
Late last year, Dana, Freud and their co-plaintiffs – Harold Smith of the nearby Amsterdam Houses, another local woman Zina Michajliczenko, and Geoffrey Croft’s group NYC Park Advocates – reached a settlement of their suit, at the urging of the judge, who Dana said was a clear sympathizer with their cause. The settlement states that Damrosch Park is dedicated parkland, and that the city and Lincoln Center will be required to restore and expand public access to the park, and not enter into similar commercial agreements. This February, Fashion Week will hold its final event at Damrosch Park.
Croft, who is all too familiar with battles like this, said that he knew from the start that they were in the right and would eventually win.
“Of all the things that we see citywide, this was probably the most egregious,” Croft said. “Once the facts came out about how over the top this was, taking away a public park for up to 10 months a year and really kind of thumbing their nose not just at the community but at park goers and environmentalists and preservationists, too.”
Croft and Dana also credit the de Blasio administration for not fighting the settlement, and both think that Bloomberg’s support for Fashion Week worked against them in the beginning. Now, it’s a matter of making sure that Lincoln Center fulfills its agreement to restore the park and keep it open and accessible.
“It’s a tremendous victory for the people who live around there,” Croft said. “The devil will be in the details, whether they uphold the agreement and also dramatically decrease the number of non-park events.”
Croft, Dana and Freud all say that they knew the law was on their side from the start, which is why the fight was worth it. Their advice to other neighborhood groups facing similar situations is to raise a ruckus as early as possible, and to keep chipping away, even when the odds seem daunting.
Dana is still raising money to pay the legal fees she incurred, close to $100,000. “We dug into our own pockets, fought lawyers who were paid by our taxpayers’ money, to get back our public park land,” she said, still incredulous. But she also said that it’s a tremendous feeling to be vindicated, to know that her years of work helped change her neighborhood for the better.“It was two retired people against this big mechanism,” Dana said. “It took a lot of work, but they didn’t count on us not giving up.”