Brooklyn Commissioner of Parks Julius Spiegel says his department has cleared 171 trees in the aftermath of last week's storm, and is expecting to clear about 50 more before it starts assessing the damage in the parks. It's the latest chapter in a career in city government spanning 37 years -- a career soon coming to an end. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.
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After three decades as Brooklyn's commissioner of parks, Julius Spiegel, a New Yorker by way of Montreal, has a lot to be proud of -- new parks, renovation of legendary sites and a spot in the Cricket Hall of Fame.
He's not a player but he saw changing demographics in Brooklyn and a growing desire for cricket grounds. So he got them built, including the one in Canarsie, and he's helped facilitate the annual mayor's cricket cup. He didn't need to be a cricket expert, much like to understand the importance of parks in Brooklyn, he didn't need to be Johnny Appleseed and know the names of every tree.
"I know London Plain and that I could recognize. And I know Genko, I could recognize that, but that's probably it," says Spiegel.
Spiegel originated the position of Brooklyn commissioner of parks. According to his office, he's overseen 200 parks, 200 playgrounds and 400 other properties like greenstreets and community gardens. And he's raised an estimated $1 billion in his time. Among the biggest projects on his watch have been the renovation of the Coney Island boardwalk and the McCarren Park pool. But after 30 years on the job, Spiegel is retiring on October 1, 2010.
"I didn't want to be around when the layoffs might hit. I've done it before, I'm capable of laying off people, but it's not fun and I said, 'Let someone else do it.' You sorta...you build something up, and I didn't wanna be there to tear parts of it down," says Spiegel.
Spiegel has spent 37 years in city government, first in the office of Management and Budget. In 1980, then parks commissioner Gordon Davis created the job of boro parks commissioner and offered it to Spiegel. On the advice of some colleagues, he chose Brooklyn over Manhattan.
"They said, 'Nah, do Brooklyn. There's too much pressure in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, you can sorta be your own guy. There are too many eyes in Manhattan.' And I think that was good advice, that I got," recalls Spiegel.
Spiegel says there are now a lot more eyes watching the parks situation in Brooklyn than when he started.
"Everything is scrutinized now, and it doesn't take long for word to get out when you try something. Or now we're trying to collect garbage on Coney Island in a different way. Well, there's blogs all over the place -- 'Don't do it this way; do it that way,'" says Spiegel.
Much of his job is raising money, and he has a very simple pitch for politicians.
"'You give your money to some other city agency, you're not gonna see any results. It takes a long time to build a sewer. Give us your money and in two years, we'll show you a new park.' And that resonates with them," explains Spiegel.
It might not get as many headlines as the police or fire departments, but the parks department has as much tangible effect on the daily lives of New Yorkers as any part of city government.
Take a park that opened a few months ago in East New York, for example. Spiegel rejects the criticism that he ignores the poorer neighborhoods for the richer neighborhoods.
"I probably work harder in the poorer neighborhoods because people in the poorer neighborhoods don't have, I mean they can't go to the Hamptons or Jersey Shore. This is their vacation," says Spiegel.
The job has had its heady moments, and its bizarre ones too.
Spiegel recalled a night years ago when he got beeped at home.
"And the message was that a guy was breaking into the zoo and seeking sexual gratification with one of the goats. I'm telling you its not for family viewing," says Spiegel.
Julius Spiegel was born in Sweden two years after World War II. His family moved to Montreal shortly thereafter. But the events of the war cast a shadow while he was growing up. His parents were Polish Jews put in the Warsaw Ghetto. Their families were murdered. But his mother and father were two of the few to survive the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
"When the Nazis burnt the ghetto, they got out through the sewers and into the woods, spent a year in the woods and then joined the Polish uprising in 1944," explains Spiegel.
He says he enjoyed many aspects of a normal childhood -- sports, summer camp. But the war was always there, always discussed.
"I was nasty with my parents. I was always arguing with them and the more I learned about the Holocaust I sort of feel like there was a watershed moment where I...in my late teens or early 20s maybe and I said 'look' and my parents are about this big. I'm not gonna harass them anymore, after what they've lived through," says Spiegel.
Spiegel says for decades after the war, his parents supported the Polish family who hid them in the woods, sending them money and visiting them twice. His parents' experience had a tangible effect on his work as well.
"I remember having a fight with one city councilman, and he was trying to bully me, and I said, 'You can't bully me. You're nothing, compared to what my parents went through.' And I think I sorta had that outlook," recalls Spiegel.
Spiegel came to New York in the late 1960s for graduate school and never left. He started working for the city in the 70s, at the time of the fiscal crisis.
"The Beame administration...we weren't sure we were gonna get paid from week to week. We thought the checks would bounce," says Spiegel.
He took over as Brooklyn's commissioner of parks in 1981. He says he was scheduled to get fired after Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office but somehow his job was saved.
He didn't like the mayor's politics, but his feelings about the man changed after the first Mets/Yankees World Series game in 2000, when his wife Suzanne was hit by a ball in batting practice and lost the vision in one eye.
"Giuliani himself called up. I mean, he was, on a personal level, he was remarkable," recalls Spiegel. "I had mixed emotions. Who wants to be on the hit list? I was newly married, two young kids, what am I gonna do? I was pretty shook up. But on a personal level, he was remarkably nice to us."
Spiegel lives in Bay Ridge, with his wife who teaches at Poly Prep. They have two grown sons. And after 37 years in city government, he now faces an uncertain future.
"I'll find out if I'm the kinda guy who can just hang out and amuse myself, or if I have to have a structured day. But I'm concerned about it," says Spiegel.
What is certain is that Spiegel's work will continue to have an effect on Brooklynites. For example, the new park in East New York.
"This park, I've been going around saying is as transformative for this community as Brooklyn Bridge Park is for Downtown Brooklyn, or the Highline is for Chelsea. I mean it's just changed the whole neighborhood," explains Spiegel.