In The Magazine

Women’s Work in Central Park

by AVENUE insider Photographed by Mary Hilliard, Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan, Sarah Cedar Miller and Zach Hyman/BFA
Friday, October 6, 2017
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It’s springtime in New York, the first week of May. After an unseasonably cool couple of months, the city has shrugged off the last of its late-winter thaws, and the trees down Fifth Avenue are finally in bloom: summer finally feels around the corner. There is much about New York that’s more predictable than its weather: that the Central Park Conservancy’s Women’s Committee’s Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon will draw a crowd on such a day is one of them. This year, the 35th annual “Hat Luncheon,” held on May 4, brought together more than 1,200 supporters of Central Park.


It’s one of the city’s premier social events, so a who’s who of society, power, politics and media turned out, most in hats so fanciful and colorful that they give the Kentucky Derby a run for its money. For starters, there was Fe Fendi wearing a crown of orchids, Martha Stewart in a massively oversized straw boater she picked up in Milan, and Julie Macklowe in a vintage fascinator resembling a patch of lavender flowers.


There was even former mayor Michael Bloomberg—who did not wear a hat, as “Men don’t need to,” he said—and designer Lela Rose, wearing a dress of her own creation and a RoCha Millinery bathing cap covered with flowers, in tribute to Esther Williams. There were also some fresh faces in the crowd, such as CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund milliner Gigi Burris, in a hat of her own design.


“Well, this year I made a hat for Shelley Carr, one of the hostesses, and she invited me,” Burris said. “It’s kind of the Super Bowl of hat wearing in New York, so I couldn’t miss it.”


Considering the aplomb with which attendees wore their hats, it might be easy to forget that the Hat Luncheon is not just about having a good time—it serves as one the Central Park Conservancy’s single most important fundraising event of the year. This year’s iteration brought in $4.5 million to fund the park’s ongoing operations and upcoming projects, bringing the total proceeds of the Hat Luncheon over its 35-year life span to $57 million.


Since its 1983 formation, the Women’s Committee has raised a staggering total of $150 million. About 15 percent of the Conservancy’s annual budget comes from its efforts. “The Women’s Committee is a crucial part of our budgets and fundraising,” says Doug Blonsky, former president of the Central Park Conservancy, who announced his retirement last month after 32 years of service. “The Women’s Committee has become this incredible force, and working with them has been one of the great privileges of my job—you know, technically I’m the only man to have ever served on the Women’s Committee, ex officio.”


But the Women’s Committee has not always had the visibility and gravitas that it enjoys today. Norma Dana, one of the founding members of the committee, recalls that at its beginning in 1993, she was hesitant about working with Central Park. “At the time I was very active with the board of the Bronx Zoo,” she says. “Paul Chase, who was a trustee of the Conservancy at the time, thought, ‘Those girls at the zoo are doing a good job, and we should do something for Central Park.’ He asked me if I would help form a Women’s Committee, but I was just too busy at the time. So instead, I agreed to just invite a few friends to the reopening of the Belvedere Castle, which they had just completed thanks to Brooke Astor. It was sort of a misty afternoon, and we didn’t think anybody would be there, but 200 people showed up, and the next day they called me and said that they had raised $250,000.”


Though it had been a sleeping beauty, the strong turnout and the ease with which those women raised a quarter million dollars demonstrated the park’s power. There was something in those 843 acres that attracted the attention—and money—of the city’s philanthropic set.


The Women’s Committee founded by Dana, Jean Clark, Marguerite Hillman Purnell and Phyllis Cerf Wagner had wind in its sails from the start. Projects were small in the beginning—raising funds for cleaning up a field here, repainting a few benches there—but over time its brief broadened. As Dana explains it, there was something about this cause that resonated with New Yorkers unlike any other. “I had no idea that people would pour in money the way they have,” she says. “You could start a project, then all of a sudden it was underwritten. Every time I picked up the phone I raised money. I was never turned down, not once. It was just total magic.”


The fact that people donated so generously speaks to the Women’s Committee’s ability to envision a better future for the park, and sell that vision to its patrons. After all, the Central Park of the early 1980s was a very different place than it is today. Over the decades, large swaths of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s creation had fallen into disrepair. By the late 20th century it had become a place of lawlessness and ruin. “You couldn’t walk through it,” says Dana. “There were needles everywhere, all kinds of debris, and there was not one bench that didn’t have graffiti. Everything was falling apart. It was a disgrace to the city.”


But thanks to a master plan orchestrated by the Central Park Conservancy, the city’s jewel of landscape architecture was renewed, in no small part thanks to the Women’s Committee. But it wasn’t just the cleanup of the Great Lawn or the refurbishment of ponds and playgrounds that changed the park. The renaissance of Central Park marked a shift in the thinking of the city’s philanthropic community, and a change in the way New Yorkers thought about public spaces, and in what civic-minded groups could achieve. This was not just ladies who lunched beneath a pretty canopy of charity—it was about building a better New York.


The Women’s Committee is distinguished by a collaborative culture. Members are not only invited but encouraged to present new ideas for the park. In 1986, Phyllis Wagner created the Adopt-A-Bench program to permanently maintain and endow the 9,000-plus benches in the park. To date, it has raised nearly $32 million, becoming the committee’s largest fundraiser after the Hat Luncheon, and serving as a model of public-private partnership for major urban parks around the world.


Gillian Miniter—former Women’s Committee president, and now a Conservancy trustee—recalls the success of one of her own early ideas as having bolstered her own stake and sense of pride in the committee’s work. She suggested a Playground Patrons program, setting a bar of even higher giving than the already popular Playground Partners program. At first, Miniter says, skeptics wondered if people would pay $1,000 a pop to support playgrounds. But Karen Lefrak, then the committee president, gave Miniter her full faith and support. “It ended up being huge, and we had more than 100 people join in the first year,” said Miniter. “Karen would send me these handwritten letters: ‘Two more this week! Keep it up!’ It was so encouraging. And a lot of those Playground Patrons ended up becoming board members or table buyers

for the Hat Luncheon and are still involved. That’s what is so great about the Women’s Committee—there is an excitement and a level of enthusiasm you don’t see anywhere else.”


The committee’s makeup is diverse: It includes East Siders, West Siders, runners, bikers, moms who take their children to the playground, and the well-heeled Fifth Avenue set whose living rooms overlook the park. “There are so many causes in this city,” says Suzie Aijala, the current committee president. “There are the medical causes, there are the museums. But what makes the Women’s Committee so special is that everyone involved really feels like they are all in this together. We really all support each other.”


But impressive as they are, the Women’s Committee’s spirit of camaraderie, its innovation, its prodigious fundraising, its 35 years of achievement, and, of course, the Hat Luncheon’s status as one of the city’s iconic social happenings aren’t finally the most important thing about it. Central Park is now one of the most visited destinations in the world, and serves as a standard setter for urban parks worldwide. But philanthropy isn’t about looking back, dressing up or social climbing. It’s about the future, and if the Women’s Committee’s track record in Central Park is any indication, the living heart of New York City will only continue to bloom. 




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