The city’s parks have not always looked as they do today—have you ever seen Central Park in the 1980s? Decrepit, dirt fields instead of lush grass, and graffiti all over Belvedere Castle. This kind of neglect was widespread in the 1970s, and as New York City entered a new decade, some key locals decided a change was needed. In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed by a group of concerned citizens who wanted to improve the park. And a year before that, in 1979, then-NYC Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis implemented new strategies to bring more people to the urban oases all over the five boroughs.
According to NYC Parks, the decade had seen “neglect and poor upkeep of many [of their] properties, and fostered a sense of public distrust and concerns about the agency’s ability to protect park visitors. Crime had become rampant in parks throughout the city and without a uniformed presence there was little to deter criminal elements from eroding the fabric of what public parks were meant to provide and represent.” This was still an era of Needle Parks.
As part of his plan, Davis “introduced borough commissioners who would serve as the liaison between the boroughs they served and the larger agency, park administrators who were assigned specific parks to manage,” and he launched a pilot program: the Urban Park Rangers. The first class of Rangers was introduced in May 1979, with a goal of increasing public safety, as well as fostering “a connection between the public and our unique natural elements.”
The Rangers were meant to serve as “the primary link between New Yorkers to the natural world through public education,” though they are also trained in “handling injured, abandoned or displaced wild animals found in the city’s park.” In fact, when we first heard about Mandarin Patinkin in October, we turned to the Rangers for answers (and they asked the public to stop feeding him bread, which is bad for ducks).
The Rangers turn 40 this year, and NYC Parks has shared these vintage photos from the program to help celebrate the milestone. Their goals have stayed the same over the decades, though the program has evolved. They “operate nature and visitor centers in each borough, and patrol our city’s parks, enforcing rules and regulations as special patrolman deputized by NYPD.” They also manage the Alley Pond Park Adventure Course in Queens.
NYC Parks Director of Urban Park Rangers, Bonnie McGuire, told Gothamist about one of her favorite moments as a Ranger:
I was a Ranger on Staten Island and we did a free canoeing program one day in Willowbrook Park. It was open to the public and was a pretty busy day. A couple in their late 60s approached us and told me they had never canoed before and asked how much it was. At this point in the program, we were pretty full and it would have been hard to fit them in before we ended for the day. We were all hot, tired and hungry from a long day of canoeing. But all of us agreed to stay late so those folks could go canoeing for the first time in their lives. We explained that the program was free, and if they hung around for 15 minutes we could fit them in. We fitted them with life jackets, gave them some basic instructions and sent them out. They were on the water for about 20 minutes and were so excited to not only canoe, but to get to see the pond and the park from a different perspective. I think these are the moments that make being a Park Ranger the most rewarding. When you get to experience that “Wow!” moment with people, whether it’s a toddler seeing a caterpillar or worm for the first time, or giving a senior couple a chance to canoe, you not only become part of their lives, but you are connecting them to the park, to the community, and to the city. Those are memories that really make the job special.
She added that “it’s the best job” in the city, and I would now like to submit my resume as a Ranger-At-Large/liaison between humans and Mandarin Patinkin, if he ever returns.