8:39 p.m. | Updated In 2004, I spoke with Adrian Benepe, who was then the parks commissioner, about the desire of hundreds of thousands of Americans to protest the Iraq War and the Bush administration by marching through the streets of our city for a rally at Central Park’s Great Lawn.
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Mr. Benepe and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg were adamantly, passionately opposed to letting protesters set foot in the park. We have, Mr. Benepe said, resodded and relandscaped. Our grass is lush and green and precious.
“Central Park is a respite from the city, a place for people to lay out and picnic,” he told me. “They have a right to protest, but they don’t have a right to destroy the Great Lawn.”
Allowing tens and tens of thousands of foodies to descend on Prospect Park’s sylvan Nethermead for the insistently, cacophonously commercial Great GoogaMooga festival is another matter altogether. A march to the Great Lawn was about free speech and dissent; GoogaMooga is about good old commerce.
The Great GoogaMooga, a fund-raising event sponsored by the Prospect Park Alliance, is promoted as an “amusement park of food, drink and music.” This weekend it has fenced off the luscious green and rolling heart of the park. Combined, tickets and food on average run well over $100 a person (even counting the admissions that were free), allowing festivalgoers to sate themselves on artisanal this and curated that.
Few of these customers, I’d guess, come from the crowded neighborhoods south and east of the park, where family income leaves most in that netherworld between working class and poor.
We live in an age of budget-starved and partly privatized parks. The consequences are not attractive. In Flushing Meadows in Queens, the quest for enough money to run a threadbare park means risking having a U.S.S. Enterprise-size soccer stadium dropped in your midst. In Prospect Park, it apparently means a festival that last year nearly wrecked that greensward for the summer.
The festival last year left great muddy patches where grass had been. Paul Nelson, the park’s spokesman, played down that damage. “It was a couple weeks,” he said. “It’s all stuff that is repairable. Trees weren’t knocked down. Buildings weren’t destroyed.”
We can agree that GoogaMooga was not as destructive as Hurricane Sandy.
But Mr. Nelson’s accounting is not remotely candid. I walk my dog — or he walks me — through this Olmsted beauty four or five days each week. Last year, reseeding the rolling meadows of the Nethermead required roping off large swathes for the summer, which shut it down for soccer and Frisbee games.
Ask about other damage, and Mr. Nelson acknowledges “a little used pathway” was left broken and cratered, and edged by a 75-yard stretch of mud and dirt. This “little used pathway” is in fact the principal walking road from the park’s lake up to the Nethermead.
“They are taking away the heart of an historic city park,” said Geoffrey Croft of New York City Park Advocates, who monitors and fights for the health of city parks like a cardiac surgeon in an E.R. “Olmsted did not design that park to have a pay-to-play beer garden.”
This festival offers many bafflements. You might ask: Why not hold it near the park’s band shell, which is closer to the street and a broad stretch of asphalt. You might also ask why the park gets so little for giving up so much.
A year ago, Mr. Croft asked how much the Prospect Park Alliance hoped to reap from this multimillion-dollar festival. The alliance declined to answer, and so he filed a freedom of information request. A week or two back, he got his answer.
For allowing a private company, Superfly, and some tony restaurants to lay metal fences across the heart of the park, to seed it with dozens of porta-potties and a chariot fleet of golf carts, the alliance reaps a grand total of:
That sum would leave the alliance straining to hire a single park worker with health benefits. The festival promoters will pay out far more than that — $325,000 — for police officers to stand guard during the festival.
Mr. Nelson said that Emily Lloyd, the chief of the Prospect Park Alliance, promised that Superfly would be more environmentally sensitive in its loading and unloading this year. He invited me to walk the fields with Ms. Lloyd once the porta-potties are carted off.
Well, sure. Perhaps we’ll run into Jennifer Schwartz, a 35-year-old bartender who walks that green glen nearly every day. She recoiled at the damage last year, and her heart sank when she saw the eighteen-wheeler beer trucks rumbling in again this year.
“This is our refuge,” she said. “It’s like bringing a boom box into a library — it doesn’t belong there.”