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One On 1: Tupper Thomas Has Deep Roots In Prospect Park

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For the past 30 years, Tupper Thomas has played an important role in every decision affecting Brooklyn's Prospect Park. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Prospect Park administrator Tupper Thomas says her biggest problem when she first took the job in 1980 would surprise many.

Tupper Thomas: "I just don't know anything about trees. But I must be able to learn it.

Budd Mishkin: "Seen one you've seen 'em all?"

Tupper Thomas: "Exactly. They all have sort of bark and leaves on them."

Now, after 30 years on the job, Thomas knows just about every inch of the park. In those 30 years, the park has gotten cleaner. She says annual usership is up from 1.7 million to nine million. She is also president of the Prospect Park Alliance, a public private partnership with the City of New York. But she's decided 30 years is enough and will leave her posts in 2011.

"Let someone with a new outlook come in before I find myself saying, 'Oh we've tried that before.' I don't want to be in that situation where I'm saying, 'Oh we tried that before,'" says Thomas. "The excitement of day to day in this park is pretty wild. And I think that will take a little getting used to -- of not immediately worrying about is a swan in trouble or did somebody burn the trees down."

Before she became administrator, a trip to the park with her then young children showed her first hand what needed to be changed.

"I had brought them to the 3rd Street playground and they both got impetigo from the sand," recalls Thomas. "You know it was one of those sand adventure playgrounds, it was filthy. So I never came back to the park after that with the kids."

But once she took the job with the park, she became one of its fiercest advocates, occasionally taking on the media.

"When I first started all the local papers, except one would say, 'A Murder Near Prospect Park' or 'this person was raped near Prospect Park.' And then you would look at the address and say, 'That's three miles away from Prospect Park. How dare they say that,'" says Thomas.


Despite her connections through several administrations, and praise from colleagues that she is "a force of nature," Thomas says her twin titles only grant her so much power.

"If there's a giant wind storm that comes and tears down all our trees, there's not a lot I can do about that," says Thomas.

But her work requires a knowledge of the park that extends far beyond matters arboreal.
For years, Thomas says the ravine was considered the area that represented a racial divide in the park. The community on the east side of the park stayed there -- same for the people on the west side of the park.

Thomas says that activities intentionally located all over the park have improved the situation.

"I think there's a very much more comfort zone, I think by all sides because that roadway piece has become so important that people go all the way around in the mornings when they do their jogging or whatever. So they've stopped thinking east and west. You know, but they still think, what's the most convenient," says Thomas.

Thomas' job also requires a knowledge of the park's history and its creators Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted.

"I misspelled Olmsted with an 'a' in it. I was sure that all those books that spelled it without an 'a' in it were wrong and that I was right," recalls Thomas.

Olmsted and Vaux designed another park which many people are familiar with -- Manhattan's Central Park. Thomas says while the iconic park is fabulous, Olmsted's landscaping of Prospect Park is the best.

"He had all the money he wanted, he didn't have any political headaches that he had in Central Park," says Thomas. "With that fabulous long meadow, that gorgeous forest, beautiful lake, no transverse roads, no grid to fight. He and Calvert Vaux did the best job here."

If walking through Prospect Park is work for Tupper Thomas, one might wonder what she
does for pleasure.

"I just go next door to the garden, because the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, because I don't have to worry about whether the litter is picked up or not," jokes Thomas.

Thomas grew up in Minnesota, in a family with a strong sense of community service, especially for women.

"My father when I said I might want to be a lawyer thought I was insane but if I say I'd like to help people, make things better, then he thinks that's a nice thing to do," recalls Thomas.

While studying urban planning at Goucher College in Baltimore, she came to work on Mayor John Lindsay's reelection campaign and eventually moved to New York to work in his administration.

"My parents thought it was great that I was doing interesting things, but they thought that New York was the most horrible place they could possibly imagine to live," says Thomas.

When Thomas moved to Brooklyn, she moved into a whole new world.

"I lived in Crown Heights which was Caribbean America and Orthodox Jewish, so that's who lived there...and me," says Thomas. "So ya know, what is this waspy, Minnesotan girl doing here in the middle of Crown Heights anyway?"


Thomas worked on housing and urban renewal issues, with 100 people reporting to her.
But when she saw an ad for the Prospect Park's administrator job, she jumped at it.

"The housing thing although altruistic and wonderful, you never see anybody and people are mostly not happy when they're with you. But in parks, if you make it nicer, people are just happier," says Thomas.

Thomas started working in Prospect Park, and her neighbors were skeptical.

"Why would you do this? It's so unsafe, the park is never coming back," recalls Thomas.

But the park has come back, and almost everyone agrees. The criticism is that the Prospect Park Alliance is not answerable to the public and is doing the work the Parks Department should be doing on its own. But Thomas defends the public-private partnership.

"If Prospect Park weren't properly cared for, the big demands that would suddenly be made by the people who live around Prospect Park would require the Parks Department to put more staff here than they currently need to because they have a partner, and they would pull them out of the lower income neighborhoods," says Thomas.

Thomas has two grown daughters, one who lives in New York and one in Costa Rica.
With retirement, she'll have more time to travel and more chances to experience the joy of returning.

"I still find New York to be the most exciting place in the world, I just love it," says Thomas. "I travel a lot now and when I come back here, I drive over that Brooklyn Bridge, fly into town and it's just like, what a great city, you know? There's nothin' better. So I think I was just smitten from the time I got here. I would never...I'd never leave."

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