She Covers the Waterfront

by Paul Hond
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Buttenwieser continues on the path, turning onto Colonels’ Row, a two-acre green shaded by trees and lined with handsome brick buildings and columned houses. There are officers’ quarters, an empty hospital (the birthplace, notes Buttenwieser, of Tom and Dick Smothers), and a startlingly long barracks in the neo-Georgian style.

“Liggett Hall was the longest military barracks in the world,” says Buttenwieser, pointing with her chin. “It’s longer than the height of the Chrysler Building.”

“Longest in the world?” says one of her companions, since Governors Island seems too small to have the longest anything.

“In the world,” Buttenwieser repeats, with a slight emphasis that settles the question for all time.

“Motherhood.” That’s the answer Ann Buttenwieser gives when asked about the origins of her park advocacy. In the early 1960s, as the mother of four young children, Buttenwieser spent many hours in the playgrounds of Central Park. There, she noticed that kids were getting hurt when they fell from the swings onto the asphalt surface. So she organized a group of parents in hopes of getting some help from City Hall. The group confirmed the asphalt problem by speaking with pediatricians at Lenox Hill Hospital, and located a company that produced a rubber matting called Safety Surf. When the city still wouldn’t pay for the, resurfacing, Butten­wieser and friends raised $50,000 for a two-playground trial. “We brought the proposal and the money to the Parks Department, which was headed by Newbold Morris,” she says. “It took two years, but we got the city to do it.” Playground injuries dropped. Within five years, Safety Surf was in the parks budget, and remains so today.

The success led Buttenwieser into more ambitious territory. In the late 1960s, she cofounded, with future parks commissioner Henry J. Stern, the Council for Parks and Playgrounds, a citywide park advocacy organization that later became New Yorkers for Parks. (Buttenwieser is still on the board.) But, like Melville’s seagazing crowds “pacing straight for the water,” Buttenwieser was inevitably drawn back to her element.

While working on her dissertation in the early 1980s (a landmark urban history called Manhattan Water-Bound: Manhattan’s Waterfront from the Seventeenth Century to the Present), Buttenwieser received a call from Albany. Governor Hugh Carey wanted to appoint her to a commission charged with deciding what would happen on the 90 acres of waterfront parkland intended for Westway, the $2.2 billion, 220-acres-of-landfill public works project that was poised to turn the crumbling West Side Highway into a six-lane supertunnel. Buttenwieser accepted the post, assuming (along with everyone else) that the plan, which had support in high places, was a done deal. But Westway became a death battle, pitting the bullhorns and slingshots and pesky lawsuits of neighborhood activists against the big guns of labor, business, and government. Opponents feared that the property above the tunnel — and the parkland, too, eventually — would be turned mostly into luxury housing.

In August 1985, a year before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned for the northern spotted owl in Oregon to be listed as “threatened” over the objections of the timber industry, a federal judge in the Westway case ruled that the government had provided flawed testimony about the project’s impact on the spawning habits of the Hudson’s striped bass. With that, Westway’s defeat was sealed.

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