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Brooke Astor, the People’s Philanthropist - Part One: Public Spaces

November 11, 2009

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. His last post was an ode to the T-shirt.)

Astor_scan On December 8, Anthony Marshall, the 85-year-old son of Brooke Astor, will be sentenced in a Manhattan courtroom for knowingly taking financial advantage of his mother in her declining years. For those of us with some connection to Mrs. Astor, the end of a trial that lasted five months and produced thousands of pages of recorded transcript will go down as one of the saddest epilogues ever attached to a beloved public figure's life.

Fortunately, for the hundreds of nonprofit organizations in New York City that received support from the Vincent Astor Foundation over the years, Mrs. Astor will be remembered in a far different light. Indeed, few foundations in my lifetime have been so positively associated with a single individual -- or admired so widely.

While some have tried to portray her as a twentieth-century Lady Bountiful, the characterization has never gained traction. Mrs. Astor took her philanthropy quite seriously, as evidenced by the twenty or so site visits she made each year. And while the New York Times' Bill Cunningham would regularly photograph her at swanky after-dark fundraisers, few managed to capture her image as she traveled to Harlem, Morrisania, Chinatown, and scores of other neighborhoods in the city’s five boroughs. Even in the two reports produced by the Astor Foundation over a forty-year period, she made sure the photographs were of the people she visited and not of herself.

Indeed, while other individuals with her social standing limited their philanthropic support to the city's museums, performing arts organizations, and other high-profile institutions, Mrs. Astor chose to reach into communities served by organizations that were rarely the beneficiaries of the New York elite and was never afraid to trust her instincts.

A closer examination of the Vincent Astor Foundation's achievements reveals her wisdom -- and gives us a picture of an individual distinguished by bold, insightful, and impressive talent.

The Story Behind Central Park's Renaissance

As a child growing up a hundred feet from Central Park in the 1950s, the park's 843 acres were my front yard. At the same time, venturing into the park was both a source of adventure and anxiety (if not outright fear). The "Jewel of Manhattan" had fallen into disrepair, and everyone -- habitués of its many nooks and crannies as well as long-time New Yorkers and wary tourists -- took it for granted that its fallen state was immutable.

As recounted by Frances Kiernan in her excellent biography The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story, in 1975, several decades after my own boyhood forays into the park, Mrs. Astor learned about Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, an employee of the Parks Department. "Betsy," as she was known to everyone, had a vision that involved using private resources to restore Central Park to its original glorious state. The Astor Foundation subsequently made a grant to the Parks Department to support Rogers' work, and when the parks commissioner balked at being told how the foundation's funds should be used, Mrs. Astor arranged for another organization to receive the grant with the stipulation that it be used to support Rogers' efforts. Those efforts soon were institutionalized in the Central Park Conservancy, the first public-private partnership of its kind in the United States. Today, Central Park truly is a jewel and the Conservancy provides 85 percent of its $27 million operating budget -- a perpetual gift to the 25 million annual visitors and countless New Yorkers who reap the benefits of Mrs. Astor's foresight on a daily basis.

"Outdoor Living Rooms"

Mrs. Astor's support for what she called "outdoor living rooms" extended across the city. One of the Astor Foundation's first significant grants after she became its president in 1960 was for construction of a small park (including playgrounds and an amphitheater) on the grounds of the George Washington Carver Houses, then a new public housing project in East Harlem.

At the same time, she did not want her philanthropy to supplant a neighborhood's own resources and capacity to create and preserve green spaces. When the Women's House of Detention, a notorious women's prison located in Greenwich Village, was torn down, Village residents banded together to create the Jefferson Market Community Garden. In 1974, the Astor Foundation pledged $6,000 a year over five years to the effort on the condition that neighborhood residents match the sum, which they did. Subsequently, the Astor Foundation made a challenge grant of $250,000 to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to cover the costs of installing a handsome wrought-iron fence around the garden, which by then had become a cherished part of Village life.

Mrs. Astor's efforts on behalf of a greener city were shaped by a variety of factors. She read widely and was greatly moved by the call to action in Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But she was no armchair donor. She insisted on visiting neighborhoods throughout New York and on seeing with her own eyes the challenges that residents faced and, most importantly, the opportunities they sought to create for themselves. She also had an uncanny ability to pick out individuals who had the qualities to be effective change agents and was more than willing to court and cajole reluctant city officials when she needed their support for particular projects. At the same time, she did not shrink from using her personal relationships and unique standing in New York society to bring other donors to the table. Indeed, she was an indefatigable fundraiser.

So as the last chapter of Brooke Astor's long and amazing life comes to a close, let's take a moment to remember all she gave us and what we can still learn from her.

Photo: Courtesy of the Vincent Astor Foundation

(The next installment in this series will focus on Mrs. Astor's contributions to the field of community economic development.)

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by livingcity@aol.com  |   November 14, 2009 at 09:41 AM

Nice job. All very true. I wrote of Mrs. Astor and Joan K. Davidson in my first book that they were the venture capitalists of philanthrophy. Their earliest investments in the new, the innovative, the unusual gave birth to so many of our now-establishment civic efforts. They helped get started the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side and 20 years later it is world-renowned.

I look forward to subsequent installments.

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   November 14, 2009 at 03:31 PM

Thanks for the comment, Roberta. I checked out your site and can't wait to get started on your article reprints. Would love to hear your thoughts about New Urbanism, the slow cities movement, and the role of philanthropy in urban revitalization. How about doing a few blog posts for us? If interested, e-mail me at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

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