If you live in the New York City area, you may not remember what a filthy city it was about two decades ago. The maintenance on many of the city’s parks was lacking from years of neglect and there was litter in more places than you’d like to think.
Around that time, 1995 to be exact, Bette Midler moved back to New York City, the city that had helped launch her fabled career when she first appeared as part of the chorus in Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway in 1967. After that, she developed a cult following when she began singing at the Continental Baths in the Village. (And her one-time piano player was the then unknown Barry Manilow).
She’s won Grammys and a Tony and has been Oscar-nominated as well. She’s currently appearing on Broadway in I’ll Eat You Last, a one-woman show about the life of Hollywood super agent Sue Mengers. But to New Yorkers, Bette Midler holds a different and special place in our hearts. For it is Bette Midler who founded the New York Restoration Project in 1999.
At that time, Bette Midler was living in Tribeca (a trendy part of lower Manhattan, for those of you not familiar with New York neighborhoods). In a recent interview with Marlo Thomas (whose work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was profiled on this very site in May), Midler told Thomas that she was horrified by the disrepair, the vacant lots and the empty buildings that were all around the city in the late 90s. According to Midler, the city had 10,000 vacant lots and empty buildings that were being used as crack houses.
Around that time, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided that NYC would sell 114 community gardens to developers. But for many years these community gardens had been tended to by gardeners who had squatted on the land. When they heard what Giuliani planned, they protested his decision at City Hall and, when Midler heard about it, she and the newly-formed New York Restoration Project raised the money needed to save the land from destruction and ensure that they’d remain public gardens.
From there, Midler and her crew moved on to cleaning up parks all around the city, starting with Fort Tryon Park at the top of Manhattan. As she told Marlo Thomas, “I took one look and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a dumping ground . . . the garbage was literally two feet high”. Midler and a small group of people (that she paid out of her own pocket with start-up funds of about $300,000) began cleaning up the park, one piece of garbage at a time. From there, their efforts spread throughout the city.
New York Restoration Project – working in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, corporate sponsors (like Home Depot) and community volunteers – have planted hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers. And in 2007, Midler and the NYRP teamed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to start MillionTreesNYC with a goal of planting 1 million trees in NYC by 2017.
Every year, Bette Midler throws a fundraising event called Hulaween to raise funds for the New York Restoration Project. In 2012, the 15th anniversary of the original bash, she raised $1.8 million to expand the work of the organization.
In response to a question by Marlo Thomas on what song of hers would exemplify her passion for her cause, Midler cites the lyrics of her hit song The Rose, which says that love is a flower and you are its only seed. Bette Midler says the song is about rebirth, restoration and regrowth and that’s what the New York Restoration Project does every day. Midler encourages people – not just in NYC but in any community around the country – to work with friends and family on cleaning up and beautifying their own local areas. A noble cause indeed.