Serving Brooklyn's Off-Leash Community

Prospect Park's Biggest Booster
(Tupper Thomas)

New York Daily News 9/29/05
By Clem Richardson

Tupper Thomas remembers the bad old days in Prospect Park. This was in the late '70s and much of the '80s, when the city's fiscal woes were made manifest in the giant park by dilapidated equipment, graffiti, crime, litter, algae-choked lakes and expanses devoid of people.

"Everybody was terrified of Prospect Park," said Thomas, who was appointed the park's administrator in 1980. "I remember going around to several schools with a park ranger and telling the principals that if they brought their schoolchildren to the park, I would assign them their own personal ranger to make sure nothing happened to them."

That was then. Let's talk about now. Today Prospect Park hosts some 7 million visitors annually, thanks in no small part to what Thomas estimates is more than $100 million in public and private funds spent sprucing Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's vision under her watch.

Hard to believe, but dogs deserve a lot of the credit. Even the threat of muggings never kept Brooklyn dog owners out of the 585-acre park. But they were more than a bit rattled when, in 1982, the Parks Department started ticketing owners who let their dogs roam city parks off their leashes. Irate owners found their way to Thomas' office. "They were screaming at me," said Thomas, herself a canine fancier. "They said, 'Why are you doing this? We're the only ones out there.'" Thomas came up with a policy which is still in effect today: dogs can run without a leash in the Long Meadow and Nethermead areas from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. every day.

That simple accommodation was a mini-catalyst that helped turn things around, Thomas said. "That dog group became a symbol that it was safe to come to the park," Thomas said. "It made an enormous difference. Runners started seeing people in the park, so people started running in the park rather than around it. 'Over time, because there were people coming to the park, the park came back to the people." That dog owners group (FIDO - Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners) is still very active in park affairs.

"You can't separate the renaissance of Prospect Park from Tupper's tenure there," said city Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "They go hand in hand. "She has a real talent for building consensus," added Benepe, a longtime colleague of Thomas who started with the department in 1979 as a ranger in Central Park. "If you were inventing the modern park administrator with 360-degree vision and all the necessary abilities, that person would look a lot like Tupper Thomas."

"When I took the job, I thought there was no place to go but up," Thomas laughed. Thomas, who lives in Park Slope, rides her bicycle in the park at 6:30 a.m. each morning as daughter Phaedra rollerblades alongside. Her other daughter, Rachel, is an environmentalist living in Costa Rica. Thomas said her objecticve always is to make Prospect Park more accessible rather than less. "This is Brooklyn's backyard," she said. "Most people enter the park either through the Grand Army Plaza or the Parkside entrances, which means many of them are coming here on the subway, not walking over from Park Slope.

"I love that you come here on the weekend and all of Brooklyn is here, every nationality. The idea is always to make the park more available to people who want to use it, not less."

Almost all of the park, including the Picnic House, the Boat House, the 11th St. Bandshell, its picturesque archways, including the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, has been renovated. Thomas said they they are about $10 million short of the money needed to rehabilitate the Wollman ice-skating rink so it can be used year-round.

Still, Thomas said she feels her greatest accomplishment is the 1987 creation of the Prospect Park Alliance, a public-private partnership between the city, the Parks Department and a bevy of civic and community groups charged with raising and maintaining an endownment for the park so it can never fall into disrepair again. Thomas is chairman of the Alliance.

The Alliance's success in raising money is a tribute to Thomas' skills as a motivator. "Unlike the Central Park Conservancy, she did not have Fortune 500 companies to the south and wealthy people surrounding Prospect Park that she could turn to for money," he said. "She didn't do it by herself. She has a great staff and a wonderful board of directors. But it is still impressive how much money she raised. "I am most proud of the Alliance," Thomas said. "It makes no difference what you put in place if two years after you are gone everything falls to pieces. With the Alliance in place, Prospect Park will always be here."

The Alliance will honor Thomas on Oct. 14 with a Prospect Park Silver Jubilee celebration in her honor. The event will be held in a tent set up in the Long Meadow. For information about the Jubilee, call (718) 965-8898 or visit online for information.