Richard Gilder’s American Legacy

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tags: philanthropy, New York, Central Park

The philanthropy of Richard Gilder, a former chairman of the Manhattan Institute, who died on Tuesday, reminds us that, at its best, charitable giving can change the face of a city. Gilder’s best-known philanthropic initiative, the Central Park Conservancy, transformed a crime-ridden dust bowl back into the jewel designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—the world’s most famous green space. This accomplishment alone would have made a proud life’s work, yet it was complemented by Gilder’s revival of the New-York Historical Society; his endowment of a graduate school attached to the city’s Museum of Natural History; and the establishment of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute—launched with another former Manhattan Institute board member, Lewis Lehrman—to restore the instruction of American history in secondary schools.

Gilder’s legacy rebukes the fashionable criticism of philanthropy as a self-indulgence of the rich, allegedly to support elite cultural institutions and political advocacy that advances narrow class interests. Such critics view philanthropists as anti-democratic—free-riders on tax deductions, making decisions that should be made by government. The Central Park Conservancy is surely the greatest rejoinder to such small-mindedness. Gilder’s idea of a nonprofit, nongovernmental group—one not only receiving financial support but also managing the day-to-day operations of the park—can be understood as philanthropic vision substituting for government failure.

It’s self-evident to any park-goer that, though some sections are bounded by wealthy neighborhoods, Central Park is again, as Olmsted intended, a haven for all social classes. The park’s northern part, bordered by less affluent areas, is every bit as well-kept as the parts that hedge multimillion-dollar real estate. Though some carp that it’s socially unjust for one park to attract so much financial support, Gilder’s model inspired similar beneficial conservancies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park, in addition to dozens of smaller public spaces. Such groups make scarce Parks Department dollars available for those neighborhood spaces that lack private support.

Gilder’s vision, moreover, helped restore not only New York’s physical surroundings but also its civil society: citizen groups, self-organizing to improve their neighborhood parks, and untold numbers of groups—such as the Caribbean cricket leagues, running clubs, and outdoor theater—that use a safe park as their foundation.

Read entire article at City Journal

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