05.17.2011 – Long Way From El Dorado: A Profile of Journalist Elisabeth Butler Cordova

Long Way from El Dorado: A Profile of Journalist Elisabeth Butler Cordova

by Benjamin J Spencer

Crain’s New York Business senior Web news producer Elisabeth Cordova seems to regret few things about leaving El Dorado.

Photo: Crainsnewyork.com

She would, however, have liked to take advantage of the “El Dorado Promise” – a college scholarship fund for residents set up by Murphy Oil, the major employer of the small city in the far southeast of Arkansas, where she grew up in a trailer park. Her father was a beat cop and the DARE officer of the town, her mother worked long hours at the hospital admitting room, and she had a half-brother and two younger sisters to boot, so she could have used a little financial help. But the program didn’t start until 1997, a year after she had graduated from tiny Parker’s Chapel High School (graduating class: 46 students).

Cordova got to college anyway, five hours away in Fayetteville. “I went as far north in the state as I could without leaving,” she says.

At first, she says, she had no clue what she wanted to do. Luckily, the University of Arkansas’s Fayetteville campus happened to have a great journalism program, and by the time senior year rolled around Cordova, who had done mostly creative writing up until college, knew that it was for her. She immediately sent in her first internship application to the offices of Southern Living in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I just assumed I’d be working in magazines, right? Because that’s what you do,” she laughs.

Southern Living rejected her application. Cordova hadn’t known that the internship was for another trade publication owned by the magazine’s publisher, and it specialized in a topic that at the time, she knew little about: cooking.

Bummed, she relied on the advice of her advisor Patsy Watkins – the first in a series of important figures who would help shape her future – and took a job with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, a small publication with a newsroom stuffed full of former sports writers. This turned out to be fortuitous.

“Sports reporters make good business writers,” says Cordova, “because they can turn boring statistics into a human story.”

The clubhouse atmosphere must have made an impression as well, because she stayed until the editors gave her a small business column of her own. After two years she’d made Associate Editor. But then, a long-term relationship crumbled and she knew the time had come to say goodbye to the Gem State.

“I got my heart broken in Arkansas,” she says ruefully.  “I had to leave. I just could not stand to see my old life driving around in my old truck.”

Rootless for the first time in her life and not caring much where she settled, Cordova consulted the AABP list and picked 10 different cities throughout the U.S. with well-regarded independent business journals. Then she blasted a volley of applications to all four corners of the country – “even Hawaii,” she says. She got a response from City Business in New Orleans and moved immediately.

But covering business in New Orleans proved slightly more challenging than in northern Arkansas.

“I was in way over my head in New Orleans,” Cordova recalls. “I almost left and went back to Fayetteville.”

Her old job still awaited. All she’d need to do was say the word and she’d be hailed as a returning hero (partly, she says, because she had done the work of three people at the NABJ, commandeering graphics, editing and reporting).

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the second of her big helpers came through – her City Business managing editor, Keith Brannon, who convinced her to stay and tough it out. “He helped me become a better business writer,” she says of Brannon.

So Cordova rallied. She went on to a two-year stint at City Business, eventually helping the journal establish its first Web department. And again, fate intervened.  She had a falling-out with a “terrible” editor, “the worst boss I have ever worked for”, she says.

This time she had a plan.

Cordova had friends who had moved to New York, including a former colleague, Keith Pandolfi, and somehow they were making it. And she was well aware of the reputation of Crain’s New York Business: at the New Orleans and Fayetteville journals, she says, the journal “had always been held up as a standard” for clear, in-depth reporting and graphic presentation.

“I wrote  [then Crain’s editor] Greg David an absolutely glowing letter,” she says.

David contacted her shortly and told her to give him a call when she got into town. Elated, Cordova moved – and ended up selling soap in Herald Square for three months. The journal had no openings. She could have gone into public relations, as many struggling writers did. But then she thought better of it.

“I know a lot of good journalists who’ve gone into P.R.,” she says. “And you just can’t come back from it. Once someone has paid you to write what they want you to say, it’s hard to look credible as a journalist anymore.”

“They do pay better, though,” she laughs.

Finally, luck was on her side, and she landed a six-week freelance gig filling in for a health care reporter on a leave of absence. When the reporter unexpectedly returned a week early, she says, “it was a bit awkward.”

“All of my stuff was at her desk. I was kind of like, ‘Hi, I’ve been filling in for you!” she laughs. But she was determined not to leave just yet. “I just sort of moved everything to a different desk nearby,” she says, and waited to hear from David. And when the journal’s fashion reporter left unexpectedly, she was there to take over.

She stayed on the fashion desk for the next three and a half years. The beat culminated in one of the best scoops of her reporting career, when she anticipated in a story that fashion icon Liz Claiborne would be completely reorganizing her empire. And it was during this time, in 2005, that she met her husband, John Cordova, with whom she now has a one-year-old daughter, Olivia. The two are expecting their second child in October.

She and her husband never would never have met, she says, if her friend Keith Pandolfi had been a bit less hung-over. She, Pandolfi and two other New Orleans friends were scheduled to meet for a brunch at Prune in the Lower East Side. Pandolfi cancelled, and one spot at their table unexpectedly opened up.  “John was there by himself,” she says, and the place was packed.

“I just thought, ‘that guy’s never going to get to eat,” she remembers. So she invited him to dine with she and her friends.

Her altruism paid off. It turned out they were a perfect match. John was a line cook at Le Bernardin, the famous fish spot, and an aspiring chef. Cordova loved to try new restaurants and occasionally cooked for her friends.  A year and a half later, they were married and living in Brooklyn, where they are on their fourth apartment. The two recently returned to Prune for the fifth anniversary of their meeting.

Spending the last four years helping create and edit news, video and graphics for the Web – she was just promoted to senior news editor last January – Cordova has learned a few things about what makes good business news.

“I was really intimidated by business journalism at first. I knew nothing about business,” she says.

But she’ll always remember a lesson she learned as a rookie reporter covering small, local companies, years ago, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

“The best business reporters,” she says, “get at the people behind the numbers.”


01.04.2011 – Kitchen Startups Turn Up the Heat in Harlem – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Kitchen startups turn up the heat in Harlem

HBK Incubates, a culinary incubator sponsored by the city’s Economic Development Corp., is catering to food retailers who want to expand their reach.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
Published: January 4, 2011 – 3:31 pm

Small food businesses in East Harlem got a shot in the arm Tuesday when the city’s Economic Development Corp. opened HBK Incubates, a new kitchen incubator space at neighborhood market La Marqueta.The incubator program is designed to help fledgling, home-based food retailers grow their businesses by providing them with inexpensive kitchen space, access to professional equipment and technical training, according to the EDC. Hot Bread Kitchen, a tenant at La Marqueta, will oversee the daily operations of the incubator and its training programs. The nonprofit, which trains immigrant women for culinary work, already uses the space for its headquarters.Elvis Hernandez, owner of home-grown cake business Daisita Bakery, plans to use the additional space and equipment he’s getting as a tenant at La Marqueta to expand his business to 100 supermarkets from his current 19. Mr. Hernandez started making cakes for friends and local markets after his bodega folded in 2007.

“My wife used to make the cakes whenever there was a birthday,” he said. “The next thing we knew, the guests at our birthday parties were calling to request them.”

Pretty soon, he says, they were struggling to fill the orders in their small home kitchen. The larger space and better equipment, he says, will allow him to increase production of his signature poundcakes from seven or eight a day to 20. He also plans to expand into flan, rice pudding and bread pudding, among other treats.

The center introduces a sorely-needed revitalization tool for an economically down-trodden area, said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a major proponent of the incubators.

“First and foremost, this revitalization will help a market that is barely holding on,” Ms. Quinn said. “And it’s going to put people to work.” Ms. Quinn also said that the incubators will help foster a local food scene in an area with a shortage of culinary establishments. The program was funded from a relatively small $1.5 million investment from the city, she said, but will provide major benefits to the community, starting with creating jobs for people with even entry-level culinary skills.

“It’s going to help some people start from zero, total start-ups,” Ms. Quinn said.

La Marqueta, formerly a mainly Hispanic market located under the Harlem Metro-North tracks, has struggled since the late 1970s to retain small food retailers, according to the Community Board 11 website. Once standing nearly empty, the main building has seen some recent activity with the arrival of several artisan craft shops and fresh fruit and vegetable vendors. But the kitchen incubator will still take up about a third of the 10,000-square-foot space of La Marqueta, according to the community board.

In a press release, the EDC said HBK Incubators will also train culinary workers for food certification and will be capable of holding up to 40 tenants on a revolving, time-share basis.

45 Minutes on a Bench Outside Think Coffee, 4th Ave, Manhattan


3:02 p.m.

A WOMAN runs up to meet her GIRLFRIEND. Her GIRLFRIEND pulls out a camera, fires two shots with a flash.


Seriously? Are you serious?


WOMAN’S tall, silent, orange-hoodied BOYFRIEND looks on.

All walk toward Strand Books. BOYFRIEND remains silent.

WOMEN jabber musically.

BOYFRIEND walks along, silent.

3:10 p.m.

TWO GIRLS walk past on sidewalk. They hug awkwardly while still walking.                                                   Photo: thinkcoffee.com


That was a shitty-ass hug!


That was the most awkward hug EVER.

TWO GIRLS laugh. They stride past, far apart.

3:18 p.m.

A CROWD of gel-haired BLOND GUYS in nearly identical black wool jackets and expensive-looking jeans start high-stepping weirdly like show horses. Laugh. Move on south toward clubs.

3:20 p.m.

A SKINNY GUY in a wool cap speeds by on a ten-speed. He is singing an opera-style high note very loudly.

A GROUP OF SKINNY TEEN GIRLS on sidewalk start imitating him.

3:22 p.m.

CASSIUS and ELLA emerge from Think. (CASSIUS – some kind of striped brown bull terrier. ELLA – a tiny Scottish terrier).

CASSIUS sits regally, surveying everyone who exits the shop.

ELLA fidgets. Noses the ground. Winds herself around owner’s legs. almost gets herself stomped upon by passersby.

OWNER berates ELLA gently, picks her up.

CASSIUS swivels head around.

3:24 p.m.

Skull-shattering ambulance siren. So many, all day long.

3:31 p.m.

Rainbow-striped, converted short-bus with a small roof hatch idles at 4th Avenue and 12th Street.

Loud salsa music blasts from the red-lighted interior.

Roof hatch opens slowly. Salsa music blasts louder, with more definition. Seconds go by. No one emerges.

Hatch lowers back down slowly. Bus drives on.

3:40 p.m.

A WOMAN answers one cell phone while still on another call.

Claps second phone to her other ear. She wears owl mittens.

WOMAN (repeating)

Ryan? Ryan? Ryan?

WOMAN steps off curb to cross street. She moves on, both phones clapped on either side of head.



3:41 p.m.

GIRL talks loudly into cell phone as she passes by. Lime green hoodie. Black tights. Pink tennis shoes. Fuzzy purple iPod, earbuds dangling.


I almost, like, jumped on that biker. I was screaming on the street.

Pauses in front. Looks in.

CASSIUS (bull terrier) throws GIRL a sidelong glance.

ELLA (Scottish terrier) sniffs GIRL’S pink tennis shoes.

GIRL is oblivious.


Yeah, I know. I’m like, prematurely grey.

3:48 p.m.

City bus pulls up to stop.

Huge Best Buy ad on the side. “Give Harmony”. Glowing pictures of smart phones and game consoles.


5.12.2010 – For Budget Buses, Chinatown’s Clogged Streets are Wide Open – GOTHAM GAZETTE

For Budget Buses, Chinatown’s Clogged Streets Are Wide Open

by Benjamin J Spencer
12 May 2010

Photo (cc) 2010 Adam E. Moreira

Around the clock, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, crowds fill the narrow Chinatown sidewalks waiting to board buses run bycompanies such as Double Happiness, Fung Wah and Lucky Star. For as little as $15, these buses take budget-conscious riders toPhiladelphia, Boston or Washington, D.C.

Critics of the buses say while they might benefit riders’ pocketbooks, they put a burden on residents and businesses near the stops,polluting the air and crowding the streets and sidewalks.

“The cheap service is only possible by the very fact the bus companies that profit off of this don’t have to pay for the problemscaused,” said Community Board 3 member Thomas Yu.

Yu, co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group and chair of the board’s Parks,Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Waterfront Committee, blames the buses for clogging traffic, blocking truck and pedestrian business and worsening already high air pollution levels.  “The residents pay for that cost while the bus company keeps the profits,” he said.

As residents and merchants complain, the city has few tools to regulate the buses and keep them from clogging the already congested area.

A New Phenomenon

Down through lower Canal and Allen Streets, passengers assemble on sidewalks on nearly every block. It was not always this way.

The phenomenon of Chinatown buses goes back only to 2001, when according to its website, Fung Wah began a van shuttle service for restaurant and other low-wage Chinatown workers in Manhattan and Queens. Over the years, the company added service to Providence and Boston, employing large coach-style diesel buses to meet the growing demand.

As budget travelers from all over the East Coast caught on to the low cost and convenience afforded by the buses, other companies sprang up. Bus routes now range as far south as Atlanta and as far north as Portland, Maine. The main hub continues to be Manhattan’s Chinatown. But many say the business has expanded faster than Chinatown’s capacity to handle.

Congestion and Air Pollution

A recent visit to the corner of Allen and Hester streets found 60-passenger interstate buses taking up four metered parking spots while loading and unloading for periods of 15 minutes and more. Others pulled into Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus stops or stopped to unload in an active traffic lane, creating congestion on the narrow, crowded roads.

Every time a bus idles or circles the block it burns diesel fuel that releases dust, smoke and fine particles into the air. The federal Environmental Protection Agency classifies these particles — known as PM2.5 — as harmful pollutants because they are small enough to inhale directly into the human lungs, causing respiratory problems and long-term side effects.

The federal agency found that particulate pollution has long been the leading factor in air pollution in New York City, with smog, or ground-level ozone, a distant second. In 2008, fine particulate matter was the main pollutant in Manhattan on 251 of the 336 days when air quality was tracked, according to the EPA Air Quality Index.

In Chinatown, the site of heavy truck and bus traffic moving over three bridges, some of those particles likely come from diesel emissions. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Chinatown has one of the highest rates of fine particulate matter concentration in the five boroughs.

Continuing Health Problems

Asthma, often linked to particulate pollution, is a major health problem in Chinatown. According to the 2007 Community Health Survey conducted by the city, 6.4 percent of respondents in lower Manhattan reported having asthma attack or episode during the year, the second highest rate in Manhattan (after Central Harlem).

These numbers don’t surprise Mae Lee, the executive director of the Chinatown Progressive Association, a non-profit agency providing free services and promoting health justice for immigrants. Residents are so concerned, she said, that the association is now gearing up to conduct its second community-wide asthma survey. The first survey, made in 2002, found that one in five households reported a family member with asthma symptoms.

Jennifer Long, a volunteer spearheading the new survey, hopes it will help draw attention to traffic congestion on Chinatown streets.

“There will be a section on idling buses” she said, “and in this survey, there will be a link to diesel pollution.”

The effects of diesel exhaust on human health are multi-faceted, said Stephen Markowitz, an epidemiologist and professor of occupational medicine at Queens College’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

“Diesel exhaust … does cause cancer, and in the shorter term it is associated with asthma and other respiratory diseases,” he said. Moving buses, he continued, pose less of a threat to human health than idling buses, because idling buses “produce higher concentrations” of fine diesel particulates.

“It’s preposterous that buses should be sitting there idling.” Markowitz said.

A Regulatory Maze

Requiring ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and particle filters on engines — restrictions already in place in New York City for some vehicles — might help alleviate the worst effects of diesel pollution. A 2005 report by the non-profit law and science group Clean Air Task Force found that these technologies can reduce toxic diesel particles released into the atmosphere “by up to 90 percent.”

But the group said existing federal clean diesel regulations only extend to engines manufactured after 2007. This leaves out diesel vehicles already on the road, which includes interstate Chinatown buses.

And while all interstate buses larger than 10,000 pounds and carrying more than nine passengers are required to obtain operating permits from the federal government, the reality is that national Clean Air guidelines are enforced by individual states, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Joe Ionnati of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said that the city and state have passed laws regulating diesel engines, but that the laws do not apply to the private interstate buses.

According to Ionnati, the ambiguous status of interstate buses also creates problems for state emissions enforcement. All heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses registered in New York must submit to yearly emissions and safety tests. But many Chinatown buses, subcontracted from various carriers, are not registered in New York.

Ionnati said the best enforcement tool city environmental officers have is the power to do out on-the-spot roadside emissions inspections that carry a fine of $700 or more per offense.

“If it’s 8,500 pounds in weight and it’s diesel, it can be pulled over,” Ionnati said. “If you had a truck or a bus coming from Canada and it’s smoking, it can be pulled over.”

He was not sure, though, how widely these inspections have been used in New York City.

The city and state environmental conservation department used roadside inspections to target heavy trucks and buses in East Harlem during a crackdown on visible exhaust in 2007.

But both Long and Lee of the Chinatown Progressive Association said these tactics would encounter obstacles in the more heavily crowded and densely populated neighborhoods of Chinatown.

“You have to make the public want it,” said Lee, “especially since these buses are extremely popular.” More enforcement would have to go hand in hand with what she termed “a solution that’s culturally acceptable to the community.”

To limit pollution, the city does bar engines from idling for more than three minutes.

Leo Lee, a manager at Apex/Universe Bus, said the city’s enforcement of this rule goes overboard. His buses are routinely targeted by police for illegal idling while unloading passengers at the company’s 13 Allen Street terminal, even though the company provides an indoor waiting room for riders.

“If any police go by they give us a ticket,” Lee said. “If the driver doesn’t speak English, you get an extra ticket.”

The Problem of Space

Rising demand and tough competition force operators to load customers where they can. On a recent day, Fung Wah’s front curb on Canal Street was lined with steel police barriers as a result of police department efforts to keep Manhattan Bridge traffic routes clear. Undaunted, the Fung Wah buses simply pulled around the corner to the Bowery and loaded customers at the first available space past the barriers.

Some businesses around the stops complain about buses and crowds of riders that block their storefronts.

“Business is very slow and people cannot park sometimes because of the buses,” said an attendant at a wall and floor-covering store who asked to remain unnamed.

Many residents and businesses would like to see the city regulate more closely where buses can load and unload. But with so many buses using the same small area of Chinatown — up to 291 arrivals and departures a day, according to 2009 study conducted by the Department of City Planning — there simply is not enough curb space to meet the demand.

At the same time, there is a maze of conflicting regulations. City law dictates that operators who use spaces not specifically designated for bus loading are breaking the law and can be ticketed.  Accordingly, a signed and designated bus layover stop did exist until recently at 88 East Broadway, but the police department put up barricades and closed it down.  Calls and emails to the NYPD precinct seeking explanation were unreturned.

In 2007, the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit attempted to find new spaces to relocate the buses, the study said, but “none of the recommended sites have proven to be feasible.”  Private bus companies may use city bus stops to quickly unload passengers, but it is “illegal to wait, layover or park in a bus stop,” and many Chinatown bus operators have abused their privilege, the study notes.

The planning department concluded that unless a permanent solution can be found, bus operators will be forced to continue negotiating on a daily basis with the local police to find temporary curbside space to load and unload.

Lee said that his company has repeatedly applied to the city Department of Transportation for a permanent loading space and received no response.

“We’re trying to make it convenient for the people of Chinatown to get places. I just don’t understand why we don’t get a space to load customers.” Lee said.

Managers for Fung Wah and Lucky Star, two of the most established bus companies in Chinatown, told the same story: repeated requests for loading space and no answer from the city.

Transportation department spokeswoman Suchi Sanagavarapu said the department “can allocate a permit right now” on an individual company basis. But there is no overall system in place to determine who gets permits, and with so many companies applying, no way to make everyone happy.

That is why, said Colleen Chattergoon, another transportation department spokeswoman, the department “has been deferring to the community boards and referring all requests to them.”

Similar problems tie the community board’s hands, said Community Board 3 transportation and safety chair David Crane. Without criteria for determining which companies deserve a piece of Chinatown’s limited curb space, he said, the board’s now simply denies all requests.

Lucky Star desk agent Ken Huang said he doubts the city will ever be able to find a solution.” There are a lot of bus companies in Chinatown and I don’t think they can give everyone a space,” he said. Further he does not see signs that the city is trying.

“I don’t think they really approve of us,” Huang said.

Solutions to the Gridlock

The city, though, does seem to be getting more involved. In response to rising resident complaints, several city agencies, including the city transportation department, are conducting studies to find solutions to the problems created by congestion and unregulated curbside loading.

In its study, the Department of City Planning recommended the transportation department auction off curb space. At a Community Board 3’s transportation and safety committee meeting in March, Crane called such a plan “doable” and told the board that it would “solve a lot of problems.”

Now, Crane said, some bus companies change their corporate names in order to avoid burdensome federal safety. This, Crane said, wouldn’t happen if companies were tied to a city-enforced permit.

A new permitting scheme would need to clear several hurdles, though, including approval the state legislature in Albany.

Meanwhile, some bus companies continue to petition for their own spaces. At the March community board meeting, Double Happiness Travel appealed for two passenger pick-up and drop-off locations on Pike Street. The board rejected the request unanimously.

“There’s no way for us to do this fairly,” Crane told company spokesman Teddy Gonzales. “You’re the fourth company in a year to petition for these spaces.”

When Gonzales expressed frustration, District Manager Susan Stetzer urged him to keep lobbying city and state officials to take action on the planning department’s recommendations.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron, whose district includes part of Chinatown, has started to looking into drafting a law, said his community liaison Rosemary Diaz, but with plenty of other issues taking up Albany’s time right now, the process may go forward slowly. Nonetheless, Diaz said more bus regulation is needed.

“They’re contributing to an area with one of the highest asthma rates in the city,” Diaz said.

4/18/2010 – A Tale of Two Parks – Original Essay


by Benjamin J Spencer

In 1831, Samuel B. Ruggles, a wealthy landowner of some renown, donated the northernmost point of his swampy land on the island of Manhattan to the city of New York. Mr. Ruggles deliberately fashioned his parcel of useless land – which he dubbed Gramercy Park – as the complement to the small courtyard parks he knew and loved in London. The space was to be, according to the deed, “an ornamental private Square or Park” belonging only to the immediately surrounding tenants.

Over the nearly two centuries to come, the drained chunk of brook-fed wetland kept mainly to itself. It invited in only a few select visitors from the surrounding buildings, each of whom, except for Gramercy Hotel guests and the Calvary Church across the street, were obliged to purchase a key for entrance through the heavy iron gates.

Gramercy Park. Photo: Wikipedia

The space remains a curiously diminutive oasis of earth, tree and flora – rooted motionless through the decades in a bygone Victorian era. All that long while, the machinations of a gigantic city sprang to life around it.

The park’s appeal is timeless. It offers a quiet escape from stress-inducing bustle, a place for lucky owners to contemplate well-tended gardens and carefully placed natural features. The stone statue of acclaimed Civil War-era actor Edwin Booth stands haughtily at the center of the square. Booth, the brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, owned a home nearby.

Solitary tenants walk small dogs and lounge on benches reading the paper, oblivious to the streams of humanity flowing by their stately isle. And why shouldn’t they relax? They have a historic backyard all to their own – one can almost imagine silk-gloved, long-necked ladies strolling arm in arm with their parasols under the manicured red oaks.

But for all its elegance, Gramercy Park strikes the visitor as quite lonely in its sun-dappled splendor, like a carriage in a museum, lost to the age.

But Madison Square Park, wedged into the intersection between Madison and 5th Avenue within sight of Times Square, is frenzied New York City through and through. Something interesting is happening on just about every square foot of these 6.2 acres.

Near the 23rd Street entrace, a couple holds hands while rollerblading in wide loops around a gurgling fountain. Lines of hungry tourists and lunch-breaking mid-town workers stand in half-hour lines down the block, yakking in sunglasses, for the chance to scarf down Shake Shack burgers and hand-cut fries. The benches lining the winding asphalt paths through the park’s center teem with life, crammed with earbudded laptop warriors slurping sodas, pastel corporate office workers devouring thick novels, and a pack of dust-bearded men in thrift store jackets who look like they’ve inhabited their shady corner of the square for a very long time.

Madison Square Park. Photo: nycgo.com

Over in the north playground, a pack of kids explodes off a jungle gym like a flock of startled birds. They race and trip over each other to be the first in line in front of an orange-wigged clown who has just arrived with a cart full of balloons. To the kids’ obvious joy, her red-gloved hands begin to twist them into fairly convincing animal shapes.

At one time, according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, before her monumental body was reassembled in New York Harbor, Lady Liberty’s torch was displayed here.

Nowadays the park is home to revolving public art exhibits, free summer concerts, public book discussions with revered authors, street festivals, gardening events. The upcoming events calendar promises a Sikh Cultural Society street festival, the Spring Kids’ Fest, and a Philippine Independence Day parade all within six weeks of each other.

None of this would be possible without the largesse of Manhattan businesses whose representatives fill out the 23rd Street BID and the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s board of directors. The park depends on the sponsorship of corporations like Credit Suisse, Con Edison, the venerable law partneres of Pomerantz, Haudek, Block, Grossman and Gross.

This is what our public parks have come to in the new century: a thin, fragile skin of city funding, easily flaked and scattered, and a solid flesh of corporate moneys underneath. But if this concession to commerce allows for the smooth operation of what is clearly a vital public space, does it really matter who ponies up the dough?

Some would say yes, that without the sense of ownership of the public, our parks will slowly become just additional space for advertising.

It is easy to take this cynic’s view. But one cannot deny that throughout the late 20th century, the park languished nearly forgotten, littered and tattered, a poorly lit refuge for ne-er-do-wells avoided by most residents. Almost half of the money for the current back-to-life renovations came from major corporate sponsors, some of whom leased buildings nearby, with a good portion of the rest supplied by private foundations.

Donations and deal-making by the 1%, not slow and steady public support, effectively saved a historic park nearly done in by public and municipal neglect. They also helped nudge the neighborhood toward residential revival – albeit with much more expensive residences than before.

Both of these small parks are near-miraculous survival stories. But they are stories that hardly swell the breast with romantic idealism.

Gramercy Park is an improbably surviving relic of a Victorian industrial monied elite, while Madison Square Park’s urban renewal was facilitated by new corporate and business elites. Madison Square Park, despite its accessiblity, is just as much a product of elite forces as Gramercy Park.

We can appreciate and enjoy these parks for the space and solace they provide to a population squeezed for most of their days into canyon-like apartment blocks. But an investment as large as a city park must be backed up by real capital, and taxpayers show little inclination to reassume that burden.