Tag Archives: Parks

Depending on the Kindness of Oligarchs

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the implications of some impending philanthropy–a gift of a new park.

[The] park will be just offshore in the Hudson River, largely financed by the media mogul Barry Diller and situated, conveniently, a short walk from his office in Chelsea.

The new park will also be near the High Line, allowing for an easy tour of how private wealth is remaking the city’s public spaces. This trend isn’t unique to New York: Philanthropists are also busy reshaping the riverfront of Philadelphia and building a green corridor through Houston. In Tulsa, Okla., a vast new park system is being financed in part by the billionaire George B. Kaiser.

David Callahan, the author of the op-ed and the editor of Inside Philanthropy, readily acknowledges the admirable generosity of donors like Mr. Diller. But he also worries that the increasing reliance on private philanthropy to replace–rather than supplement–funding previously supplied through taxes and subject to democratic decision making is, in his words,  “more evidence of how a hollowed-out public sector is losing its critical role, and how private wealth is taking the wheel and having a growing say over basic parts of American life.”

In New York, while philanthropists have lavished money on parks adjacent to their neighborhoods, declining public revenues have left parks in poorer precincts in considerable disrepair.

The design, placement and maintenance of parks were once a function of democratic processes. Now, as a citizen, you feel like a spectator to largely privatized decision making. A declining public sector, burdened by budget cuts, creates a vacuum for imaginative civic leadership that is being filled by a new class of Medicis.

Medicis–an apt descriptor.

I have often explained to students the different functions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The question answered by the Bill of Rights is procedural: it answers the fundamental question who decides? Who gets to decide issues of basic individual liberty–what religion you practice, what book you read, what street you can stroll down, who you marry? In our system, I explain, those personal decisions–good or bad– are supposed to be made by individual citizens, not by the state. The Constitution, on the other hand, sets out rules applicable to collective decision-making; it assumes wide participation in a democratically-shaped civic life.

Oligarchy, on the other hand, does not rely on wide participation. Its definition:  “A form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.”

Receipt of largesse–no matter how well-intended–is not a characteristic of a free and equal society. When you are the beneficiary of someone else’s charity, rather than a citizen entitled to enjoyment of public goods, you live in a feudal society.

Like Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire” who always depended on the kindness of strangers, we peons increasingly depend upon the beneficence of oligarchs.





The media is reporting on a huge gift from the Endowment to Indianapolis Parks. Again.

The gift acknowledges the importance of parks to our quality of life: for recreation, for contemplation, for the aesthetics of daily life. It also acknowledges our collective refusal to grow up and take responsibility for our own community.

Lilly has made other significant gifts intended to keep our city’s parks from falling into even greater disrepair. Back when I was in City Hall, the Endowment was accompanying those gifts with warnings to city officials that the largesse would not go on forever, that the gifts were intended to give the City some breathing room, some time during which we would have to come up with resources to sustain these important urban amenities.

We haven’t. Instead, we’ve bought into the “how dare you tax me” mentality–the spoiled child syndrome that demands goodies but is unwilling to get a job to earn the money to buy them. The Endowment, meanwhile, is like the rich, indulgent uncle who gives in and bails us out of the consequences of our irresponsibility.

One of these days, our rich uncle is going to say “enough,” and we are going to be on our own. The question is: will we be grown-up enough to pay for the services that make a city livable?


What Should Government Do?

My husband and I took our two youngest grandchildren to McCormick’s Creek State Park last weekend. McCormick’s Creek is one of Indiana’s state parks; located in the southern third of the state, it boasts acres of woods, a very nice (and reasonably priced) inn, and the requisite picnic areas and playgrounds. The weather was lovely, and the park was full of families.

While we were at the park, some 70,000 people were descending on Washington, D.C. to make a statement about their anger at “big government.” (Actually, it wasn’t too clear WHAT they were so angry about; apparently, it was an all-purpose “pox on your house” sort of event. A significant number just seemed royally pissed that a black Democrat had won the election.)

Giving the protestors/tea baggers the benefit of the doubt, their message seemed to be that government is too big, doing too much, spending too much and they want it to stop.

Which gets me back to the lovely state park we enjoyed with so many other citizens over the weekend. Should state and local government provide amenities like parks, museums and libraries? The Monon Trail gets massive use; was it okay for government to create it? What about street lights? Police and fire protection are generally agreed to be appropriate uses of our tax dollars, but there is considerable debate over spending those dollars on sports arenas, or even on the arts.

Maybe what the protestors are saying is that these more local expenditures are okay, but the federal government is too big. Again, though–“too big”  is too general. What would these folks like the federal government to stop doing? National defense? (I could see protesting unnecessary wars, but these are the people who appear to support those.) National parks? Social security and Medicare? Should the FDA stop testing our foods for things like e coli? Stop regulating banks and big businesses? (We did stop that, for all intents and purposes, during the Bush Administration. That didn’t turn out very well.)

I’m certainly not saying that everything government does needs to be done by government. (I would keep the parks, however. And quite a number of other functions we ask government to perform.) But people who simply rant about “too big” and “too much,” without specifying what they are prepared to do without, aren’t very persuasive.