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Safeguarding private value in public spaces: the neoliberalization of public service work in New York City's Parks.

Introduction (1)

INCREASINGLY, PARK DEVELOPMENT AND MAINTENANCE IN THE UNITED STATES is justified on the basis of the value parks add to neighboring real estate. To be sure, it is not the only justification that municipal leaders and parks and open-space advocates use. But parks advocates widely believe that the presence of a park in a neighborhood hikes real estate values, making them cost-effective in comparison with competing priorities (Appleseed, Inc., 2009; Crompton, 2001; Friends of Hudson River Park, 2008; New Yorkers for Parks, 2009). The main exception has to do with the maintenance and operations of parks. A poorly maintained park, or one that is frequented by drug dealers or has a reputation for violent crime, will, unsurprisingly, have a depressive effect on real estate value.

This article links discussions of the role of parks in generating private value, the work involved in their maintenance, and the management of this work. Privatization of the value of parks is often understood as compatible with their public benefits, and this has increasingly become an important aspect of park development and operations. Despite a thorough reorganization of park maintenance and operations in a neoliberal direction, this work and the conditions of work in parks maintenance has been less discussed. Thus, we see a combination of "the commodification of public goods and the rise of underpaid, precarious work" (Wacquant, 2009: 5) in parks maintenance. Policymakers in the public and private sectors have increasingly shifted the labor contracts covering maintenance work. Once a fairly stable civil service job, maintenance work has migrated to a variety of different sorts of arrangements. Though there are still permanent workers, they are outnumbered by welfare-to-work trainees (Job Training Program participants), several different types of volunteers, people sentenced to community service for petty crimes, and employees of private park "conservancies" with contracts granting them various levels of responsibility over specific parks. The coherence of the neoliberal project of undermining permanent public commitments to workers contrasts with, and is complemented by, the incoherence of the new crop of workers it creates. Regulated under vastly different systems--the civil service, welfare, corrections, volunteerism, Business Improvement Districts, etc.--these workers are unlikely to act collectively.

The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) played an important historical role in the origins of public-sector unionism and in its eclipse (e.g., Bellush and Bellush, 1984). DPR laborers signed the first collectively bargained contract with the City of New York in 1960; subsequently, it was a principal user of "workfare" workers in the 1990s, as recipients of welfare were forced to work as a condition of receiving their welfare benefits (Krinsky, 2007). The DPR is also an agency at the forefront of what might be called "networked governance": since 1995, it has had a nonprofit arm, the City Parks Foundation, and a public-private partnership, the Partnership for Parks, which is tasked with organizing and supporting 1,800 community-based parks advocacy and volunteer groups (Partnership for Parks, 2011). By 2007, Partnership for Parks estimated that 1.7 million hours of volunteer work--or roughly the full-time equivalent of 850 parks workers (on a base of roughly 3,000 permanent workers)--had been done in the city's parks during the previous year. Moreover, the DPR has a wide range of contracting arrangements with private companies and agencies, both nonprofit and for-profit, to perform tasks as diverse as regular parks and green-space maintenance, vehicle repair, and planting. Further, the DPR extensively uses summer youth employment program workers and people sentenced to community service to perform routine maintenance tasks and, in the case of summer youth workers, to staff recreational activities.

New York City's parks have appeared in several important accounts of urban neoliberalism (e.g., Katz, 2006; Madden, 2010), in which the growing private administration of parks such as Central Park by the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) or Bryant Park, with the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), is understood to be changing the nature of the "public" being served, from a citizen public to a consumer public, and one, moreover, that must be protected and secured from threats from other members of the public. Cindi Katz, for example, recognizes what many observers of New York's flagship parks do, namely, that in spite of continued under-funding of operations, many parks look great, even far better than they did before the rise of neoliberal governance in the 1970s fiscal crisis. Yet she also correctly indicates that the ability of the parks department to maintain parks amid sharply reduced operating budgets relies on increased capital expenditures--directed first to elite parks and often to refurbish chronically under-maintained parks--and on the use, during the 1990s, of thousands of unpaid "workfare" workers--welfare recipients required to "work off" their benefits--and an increasing number of volunteers. (2) This is underwritten by a more generalized discourse of crisis. Fiscal crises and crises of crime, personal security, and of social dissolution defined the revanchist politics of the 1990s (Smith, 2002), a kind of moral austerity program that defined the neoliberal governance of capitalism. These have continued in attenuated form--if only because they are the new normal--into the present. Workfare has largely been eclipsed as a source of parks labor (Krinsky, 2007), but maintenance, clerical work, and even policing through the Parks Enforcement Program and crews of job-training program participants rousting homeless people from parks have become the province of a fractured workforce (Wernick et al., 2000; Colangelo, 2011).

In the following pages, we illustrate the interplay between maintenance workforce changes and efforts to derive value from parks, as they play out in New York City. Throughout, we attend to the varieties of experience and tensions that mark the management of a workforce that has been neoliberalized for more than 30 years. We highlight the unevenness of this neoliberalizing process and the ways in which parks maintenance is increasingly geared toward accumulation, protection of the conditions for accumulation, and the securing of class power in the city. In so doing, we draw on reports by parks advocacy groups, city council testimony, our own non-participant observation, and more than 100 interviews of workers in New York City's parks conducted between September 2008 and April 2011.

Reworking Maintenance

This section draws on our interviews to illuminate different aspects of four dynamics that are central to the neoliberalization of public-sector work. These four, privatization, proliferation, segmentation of labor contracts, and devalorization of lower-segment work, are widely understood to be aspects of neoliberalization but are less widely studied up close. When we consider them in detail, we see a great deal of variety and several contradictions. We also get a clearer sense of why alternatives are difficult to organize.


Privatization takes on many forms in the DPR. Two principal types, however, are contracting out for services--a common practice in contemporary urban governance--and the awarding of master contracts for maintaining and operating public spaces, which is a somewhat less common, but growing practice. The department has long contracted for capital work, such as major systems replacement (e.g., drainage lines) or park reconstruction with for-profit, private construction firms. Though the department has several "shops" for various repair functions such as vehicle repair in every borough, since 1996 it has contracted out its vehicle repair shop in the borough of Queens. That year, a private, for-profit gardening firm was also given a contract to manage and operate parks in a Queens park district, but it lost the contract after a year because the DPR, with access to workfare workers, had "free labor" at its disposal, as one park manager (3) described it, and it turned out that this gave the public sector a competitive cost advantage over the private contractor.

The granting of master contracts dates back further, to the Bryant Park privatization in 1981. At that time, reports one BPC manager, "the city's power was at an all-time low," as it was still reeling from an epochal fiscal crisis imposed on it six years earlier by Wall Street investment firms. At that time, New York City was shut out of the bond markets by investment banks worried about their failing real estate portfolios, their risks in the debt of developing nations (particularly with the Oil Crisis and inflation), and the extensive short-term borrowing of older U.S. cities. Backed by ideological neoliberals such as William Simon, President Ford's Treasury Secretary (and a former head of municipal lending for an investment firm), the investment banks insisted on a severe program of austerity, layoffs, and public-sector cuts as a condition for allowing the city to borrow money again (e.g., Freeman, 2000). The fiscal crisis enabled the BPC's foundation-backed founder to gain considerable leverage over the terms of the contract by which the new organization would administer the park. It quickly moved to hire its own nonunion staff and was able to retain all of the revenues generated through future concessions in the park and get a portion of tax surcharges allowed by a Business Improvement District levied on local business owners. Though the Central Park Conservancy was also founded at this time, it did not gain a master contract to administer the park until 1998, due especially to advocacy by one of its co-founders, stockbroker and philanthropist Richard Gilder, who urged that the CPC to:

serve as a model for renewing the whole park system. It's time for the city to recognize officially the wonders that private groups can accomplish. The city should formally hire the Conservancy to run Central Park, and it should start down the road toward finding able managers--some of them private companies perhaps--for all our parks (Gilder, 1997).

Gilder continued:
   What most tips the scales in favor of a management contract should
   be beyond dispute: the Conservancy does a better job running
   Central Park than the Parks Department can. The Conservancy's great
   advantage comes in staffing. It hires and pays its horticulturists,
   groundskeepers, and cleanup crews as any private employer would. If
   they do well, they advance. If they do poorly, they're fired.
   Conservancy staffers are flexible enough to do more than one task,
   so they can be assigned to whatever job needs doing most urgently.
   And most crucial perhaps, the Conservancy is able to instill a real
   sense of pride in those who work for it; they come to think of
   Central Park as their park. Though the Parks Department has many
   fine people in Central Park, they work under a bureaucratic,
   seniority-based union system. Rigid union job descriptions can
   create a ready excuse for leaving work undone.

During hearings before the city council, however, the Parks Commissioner at the time, Henry Stern, echoed the concerns of some city council members that CPC should not be given the same level of control over the park as BPC got over Bryant Park (New York City Council, 1997). Gilder argued that CPC should give up the entire city subsidy to run the park and rely instead on the increasingly growing revenue stream from concessions. However, the master contract had a shared revenue model, continued the subsidy and a (shrinking) presence of parks maintenance employees, and separated the role of the Conservancy president from that of the Central Park Administrator--a DPR position initially created for CPC's founder. This latter provision was amended in 2004, and the current administrator--with authority over all of Central Park's operations--is also the president of CPC and draws a salary from CPC and the DPR. The eight-year renewal of the contract in 2006 increased the amount of concession income CPC can receive.

Bryant Park represents the most "corporate" model of privatization, with Central Park coming close on a continuum from private to public control. Of course, this continuum is multidimensional, incorporating variables such as what happens with concession income, whether a conservancy has its own employees, who controls and benefits from programming brought to the park, how closely park operations are coordinated with DPR maintenance and operations staff, etc. Brooklyn's large Prospect Park, for example, has a conservancy-like structure, as well as some of its own employees, but in a lower proportion than Central Park. Its jobs do not as clearly duplicate the tasks done by city workers in the park. The High Line, a park on a disused railway trestle on Manhattan's west side, has its own maintenance staff supervised by Friends of the High Line, and Hudson River Park is beyond the auspices of the DPR, overseen by a joint city-state "public benefit corporation," and contracts its maintenance to a cleaning service staffed by formerly homeless men. (4)

If there is a rule of thumb with respect to privatization, it is that the more privileged the neighborhood in which a park is located, the more likely it is that it falls under some measure of private control, and that the workers who maintain it are under private control, with no guaranteed employment benefits or union rights. There is also some overlap with tourist-attractiveness (e.g., Central Park, Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, the High Line), which is essentially self-reinforcing, since parks play a role in revitalizing neighborhood real estate value. In contrast, non-privileged neighborhood parks and playgrounds are funded by regular allocations through the DPR, and their repairs either in the capital budget or in "requirement" contracts secured by local city council members in the yearly budget process. The main and most important exception to this rule regards the policing of parks by Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers. Here, the equation is reversed. Fulltime PEP officers are concentrated in Manhattan's "elite" parks, and virtually absent from most of the remaining city parks. PEP officers are paid for by many of the private parks, almost as a reverse "contract" with the DPR, which allocates Job Training Participants (JTPs) to many other parks as PEP officers. Though PEP officers do not perform maintenance tasks, they regularly engage in "cleaning" parks of homeless people and their belongings (Interview, former JTP PEP, March 2011; Colangelo, 2008; Meminger, 2011).


Alongside a continuum of privatization is what might be understood as a gradient of arbitrariness in terms of workers' rights and working conditions in parks maintenance and operations functions. The relationship is complex and there is not a perfect match with privatization.

Two related dynamics are driving new distinctions among workers in the DPR's maintenance and operations. First, there is a simple proliferation of conditions of employment--or deployment--for workers who perform similar tasks in maintenance and operations across New York City's parks. For standard, city-run parks, workgroups are structured on a district basis, with park districts mostly coterminous with "community districts" or sub-borough units of neighborhood-based governance. Each district--or sometimes several districts together--has a manager and a senior parks supervisor (a PS 2). Two junior parks supervisors (PS 1) coordinate and supervise a staff of two or three Associate Parks Service Workers (APSW), who, because they have a commercial drivers' license, can operate the large garbage trucks or "packers" (which is what they mostly do, though some districts lack heavy packers). Several City Parks Workers (CPWs) are either "fixed post" in specific parks and playgrounds, or "mobile," in which case they usually are designated as "crew chiefs" and drive vans or pickup trucks, supervising the work of JTPs and community-service sentencees. JTPs may also be mobile or fixed post, and they do the bulk of the cleaning of litter, emptying of garbage cans, raking and blowing of leaves, and maintenance of bathrooms, though they often work alongside CPWs or community service sentencees to do this. The Parks Opportunity Program (POP) (5)--the educational and training arm of JTP--offers horticultural training, and JTPs also staff horticultural crews overseen by DPR gardeners or assistant gardeners. Finally, most districts have a "maintenance man," or someone who does basic equipment repairs (benches, fences, or basic plumbing) that do not require the intervention of the "shops" or groups of borough-level skilled craftspeople such as electricians and plumbers.

CPWs and JTPs also overlap significantly in the work they do with volunteers, who tend toward two main types, corporate volunteers and regular volunteers. Corporate volunteers usually visit a park in large groups, on prior arrangement with the district manager, several times a year. Usually dressed in identical T-shirts that advertise their company, they are most often put to work on specific projects, like painting all of the benches in a given park. While volunteers do some litter removal, most are used to do a kind of maintenance task that, in the face of chronic staffing shortages, might otherwise be deferred. Regular volunteers typically work in conjunction with a "Friends of ..." organization--a nonprofit group that fundraises and runs events in specific parks, but does not have a management contract--or conservancies. These organizations coordinate regular volunteer days, and volunteers who come regularly may often be given specific duties or may adopt specific areas of the park as "theirs." Regular volunteers normally do more horticultural work--planting and weeding--than do JTPs and CPWs, and some park districts, especially those without gardeners assigned to them, rely exclusively on volunteers for plantings. Nevertheless, like JTPs and community-service sentencees, regular volunteers also do a great deal of litter cleanup, though they are not asked to clean bathrooms and can often choose which of several tasks they would prefer on a given day.

Conservancies vary considerably with respect to how they hire and deploy labor in maintenance and operations, making it difficult to generalize across cases. Because they lack cost-effective access to independent repair shops, most rely on the DPR and its APSWs for trash removal via heavy packers, and some rely largely on DPR crews for basic maintenance and litter and leaf cleanup, while investing more significantly in horticultural workers. Others take advantage of their private, non-civil-service status to craft job descriptions that involve multiple areas of maintenance, including horticulture, in the same job.

Finally, maintenance of other DPR-managed areas, such as traffic medians or "green streets," is often done by a combination of regular DPR district workers (mostly CPW crew chief-supervised JTP and community-service mobile crews) and contracted employees working under a subcontract with groups that manage the green streets, such as the Broadway Mall Association, which raises funds from foundations (including the Gilder foundation), local apartment buildings, large real estate firms, banks, and many small businesses on Manhattan's Upper West Side. DPR crews provide regular maintenance, while workers from the Doe Fund, Inc.--the same company that provides maintenance workers for Hudson River Park--and participants in a program for homeless, mentally ill adults (TOP Opportunities, operated by a local nonprofit organization) provide supplemental maintenance services, and high school interns, volunteers, and professional gardening companies maintain seasonal plantings (Broadway Mall Association).


Labor scholars have long understood labor markets to be tiered or segmented. This means simply that stability of tenure, benefits, and high pay tend to cluster in some types of job, and to be relatively absent in others (e.g., Gordon, Edwards, and Reich, 1982; Tilly and Tilly, 1998). Often understood at least partly as a function of skill or human capital, labor market segments have nevertheless become increasingly unequal and increasingly separate within firms or other organizations and within and even across industries. One dynamic that has been particularly marked over the last 30 years has been the erosion of internal labor markets (ILMs). ILMs are, in effect, job ladders within a firm that provide opportunities for development and promotion among existing workers. When ILMs disappear, it is a sign of a firm's eroding commitment to long-term employment and increasing reliance on a core group of managers and skilled workers, to whom long-term commitments are made, and a corresponding reliance on short-term, relatively poorly compensated employment to fill the non-managerial ranks.

In the public sector, the civil service, with its system of examinations, is the mechanism for securing ILMs. The idea is that passages up the job ladder should be based on merit. Public-sector labor unions have guarded the civil service system because it and public-sector labor relations law confer upon workers a wide range of rights and job security and make workers less susceptible to favoritism and the patrimonial power dynamics associated with it. But for the same reason, mayors, especially since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, have been eager to chip away at the system, to exert greater control over the labor process in public services itself and to escape the costs associated with non-contingent labor.

The proliferation of jobs in maintenance and operations is not innocent of these segmentation dynamics. Workers for conservancies, volunteers, community service sentencees, and contractors are not subject to civil service, mainly because, with the exception of the private conservancy workers, they are not anticipated to be part of the parks' workforce for long. Indeed, on an individual basis--rather than as a type of worker--they are not. Though officially a "noncompetitive" civil service title, JTP is a temporary position with no tenure rights. Accordingly, over half the work done in maintenance and operations in the DPR occurs outside a system with formal ILMs or procedures for ensuring security of tenure for lower-level workers. (6)

To the extent that there is an effective ILM in parks maintenance, it occurs mainly among the CPW, APSW, and PS1 civil service titles, and to a lesser extent, with seasonal workers and the JTPs. Our interviews with DPR employees revealed several instances in which people who were in some level of supervisory position had earlier come through JTP's predecessor, the Work Experience Program, or WEP (a workfare program that was not even defined as employment), as well as other non-supervisory former JTP or seasonal workers who were hired full time. Nevertheless, because the number of JTPs is so large and the number of vacant positions small--in no small part because of the size of the JTP program--roughly 25% of JTPs are hired into jobs after completing the six-month program, and a smaller number are hired into full-time employment. Fewer still are hired into full-time parks work (Community Voices Heard, 2006). (7) Understood, then, as a program providing seasonal workers whose pay is below that of regularly hired seasonal workers, JTP largely prepares participants for unemployment, but shifts the source of their support from the welfare system to the unemployment system, while enabling the welfare system--an important source of funding for JTP--to subsidize a steady stream of replacements and the supplies and tools that come with the program. As one park worker told us:
   We get a lot of JTPs that come through here and they're fabulous
   workers, they really work.... We always ask for extensions, see if
   we can get them permanent, and it never happens. I mean, it hasn't
   happened in like a while, like maybe a year or two.

Conservancy workers tend to be better paid and more secure in the long term than are JTPs, but they are less well paid and less secure than are civil service workers, who are unionized. The absence of union protections was, of course, one of the reasons that conservancies hired staff in the first place. As Murray (2009: 207) indicates:
   Nor should the power to avoid city workers be underestimated.
   Noncity workers lack power to object to [Central Park Conservancy]
   initiatives on employment grounds. The CPC benefits from having the
   power to establish its own meritocracy separate from the union's
   seniority system, to fire employees at will, and to reassign
   employees to different tasks without significant process.

This is not lost on public workers, either. Workers and managers in Central Park both refer to a period of tension between CPC and DPR workers in the park, as the former steadily supplanted the latter. Though even union officials admit that "for a nonunion place, [CPC] is decent" relative to private employment at the skill levels of the lower-level maintenance workers ("Because there are other bosses that it's just sweatshop conditions, you know?"), "the complaints are job security and the arbitrariness of an employer." Indeed, several workers we interviewed, in and out of the conservancy, cited these as the main comparative drawbacks of working for a conservancy, even while managers at the conservancy prided themselves on what they said was an open-door policy to hear workers' complaints. Nevertheless, as a union official pointed out, turnover in conservancies is significantly higher than it is in the civil service, suggesting that even in the lower tiers of the labor market, the turnover pool for "regular"--i.e., not seasonal--employees turns over faster than it does in the public sector, leading to significantly lower costs in the long run.


Though conservancy workers can be terminated and disciplined without much recourse, arbitrariness is not limited to private contractors. Arbitrariness is not random, but is part of larger dynamic of the devalorization of work. As much as civil service rules and public employment law provide some stability and protection, in equal measure, they have been breached in spirit and letter in on-the-ground, everyday decisions about managing an increasingly resource-strapped department. Where job descriptions in private conservancies carry little weight when tasks need to be accomplished, in a unionized civil-service setting, the point is that the government should hire people to do work they are qualified to do, and should pay for it appropriately. If government wants to pay workers less than other workers charged with doing the same work receive, it is supposed to negotiate this with the unions. Even WEP and JTP were, to some degree, negotiated with unions (though with a union badly divided internally [Krinsky, 2007]). But the attrition of unionized workers in conservancy-run parks is imposed unilaterally, as is the regular resort to "out-of-title" work, or the assignment of tasks to workers in one civil service title that is outside their job descriptions.

Out-of-title work is widespread, in large part because many districts are short of staff. And it works in both directions: we have seen JTPs supervising summer youth workers, CPWs regularly driving vans with JTPs without getting the "crew chief" pay differential. We have also seen supervisors doing more basic cleaning work and snow removal because they were so short of staff. In the former case, one park worker noted the way in which supervisors depend on and exploit the workers' feeling that "getting the job done" is important: "But somebody has to do it. So I mean I could go to the union and grieve it and all that, but the part about that is, as soon as you grieve it, they blackball you and they send you to a bad district, and that's how it goes."

In instances in which lower-level workers are asked to do work in a higher-level job description, work in the higher-level description is clearly being devalued, just as much as it is when this lower-level work is being taken over by even more poorly paid JTPs or unpaid community service sentencees. This is also the case when volunteers do work normally in the job descriptions of CPWs and JTPs.

Volunteerism, however gratifying an activity for volunteers and however much it fosters of a sense of community, has also plainly become part of the DPR's labor policy; it is central to the work of conservancies in their quest to avoid the costs of hiring more workers. Since the city's fiscal crisis in 1975, when then-Mayor Abraham Beame called for volunteers to do work once done by laid-off workers (which unions and others protested), the idea that volunteers could fill maintenance roles has been one of several planks in a labor platform that has sought to get paid work done for free (see Clines, 1976; Ferretti, 1975; and Boer, 1976).

The reliance on volunteer work does not, however, mean that all volunteers embrace the role of replacing regular workers and making up for the DPR's budget shortfalls. As one volunteer put it, "There's only so much a volunteer can do." There is a broader understanding of this contradiction, as well. The Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, also felt that he had to reassure volunteers at a volunteer appreciation reception in 2008 that budget problems would not result in staff cutbacks.

Securing Profits in Public Spaces

Contradictions of Contingent Work and Their Management

The labor strategy in parks maintenance has four planks: privatization, proliferation and segmentation of the workforce, skirting civil service requirements, and reliance on labor that is either free or paid from another source. The strategy, however, does not work without friction.

One area of friction lies in the several attempts over the past 20 years to organize workers in conservancies or other non-DPR managed parks, including a campaign to organize workers contracted by the Hudson River Park Trust. Central Park Conservancy is the most developed and most visible conservancy--with the possible exception of Bryant Park. With a privately hired and managed workforce, it has been the target of three unionization drives. The first was in the early 1990s, the second in the late 1990s, and the third from 2008 to 2009. Each failed, and each faced significant opposition from the conservancy. Our own study of the most recent unionization drive suggests that it failed for several reasons. The union organizing it--District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the union representing most non-teacher municipal workers, including titles in the DPR--may have provided too few resources for the drive, given the level of resistance put up by the Conservancy. (8) Though specific accounts differ between union supporters and managers, it is clear that managers held meetings with workers in which they discouraged union activity. One former staff member reported that meetings were characterized by general anti-union talk:
   "You guys, you don't really need a union, you gonna lose your
   voice, you can speak for yourselves," stuff like that. That was
   just part of the campaign to not have people join the union. They
   did not want a part of that union, and they still don't want a part
   of the union. And ... they know how they manipulate the system.
   They know how ... to intimidate people.

When interviewed, managers indicated that Central Park was "already a unionized workplace" due to the presence of unionized city parks workers and since CPC had worked alongside unionized workers since the conservancy's inception. Unionization, they also added, would make managers stop treating the workers "as individuals." Managers referred to union "thugs" who would try to recruit workers, as well.

It was clear, however, that the union campaign was also hampered by racial tensions among the workers. African American and Latino workers felt that they were not treated by the Conservancy with the same dignity as white workers were. This was reflected in the patterns of support for the union drive. Nevertheless, even union supporters spoke positively about their work in the parks, and their regrets were mainly that they often felt that supervision and discipline were arbitrary, and chafed against a system in which Conservancy managers could hire and fire at will.

This came to a head in January 2009, when CPC, facing a budgetary shortfall due to fallout from the financial crisis, fired more than 30 of its staff, just over 10% of its workers. Many departments and positions experienced cuts, and these were made according to performance reviews, not seniority. Among those let go--and some who were not--there was a keen sense that many were supporters of the union, those people,
   who would tell you where it is. And they don't want you to tell
   them. They don't want you to tell them where it is, they want to
   tell you the way it is and the way it's gonna be. And Central Park
   can be that at times. Not all the time, but in some cases, they
   want to talk down to you, instead of talk to you.

Workers who were let go were given no notice, even those who had been working for Central Park Conservancy for more than 10 or 15 years, casting doubt on CPC's allegations that job performance was the fulcrum in the firings.

Staff reductions at CPC created other problems. Managers spoke of having to redo the schedule so that employees worked an extra evening shift, which nobody liked. Morale was low, and maintenance of the park suffered. Nevertheless, CPC expanded its volunteer program, bringing on more regular volunteers to be assigned to their "zone gardeners" or section heads (the park is divided into 49 zones, each with a zone gardener) for several hours per week. Another program created just after the layoffs enabled visitors to sign out garbage bags and litter grabbers and become volunteer cleaners for an hour. It was "was not a resounding success." A brief expansion in the number of JTPs in the park led to inconsistencies in the quality of JTPs' work; the barriers they faced in attendance made planning around JTPs difficult. Moreover, CPC managers also suggested that large-scale volunteer days were less important than longer-term volunteers. Seasonal workers were more difficult to train and manage for the return they provided than was the case with full-time workers. The experience of shedding full-time workers exposed some of the dangers of moving toward a more casualized turnover pool for private parks managers. (9) CPC depends on its "relationships" with the public and its image--"our label"--to raise money, and a more casualized workforce makes this more difficult.

Outside the conservancies, where JTPs are more prominent, the problems of dealing with a contingent workforce also impress themselves on managers. One parks manager explicitly told us that JTP absences are routinely underreported because to do so would result in their being fired, even if the absences were for good reasons. If the JTPs are fired, there is no guarantee that the parks district will get more. Accordingly, it is better to have a worker for a few days each week than it is to have nobody. The chronic understaffing of the department in terms of permanent employees--enabled by replacing permanent staff with JTPs--makes it difficult to enforce workplace discipline on JTPs. Nevertheless, many JTPs and seasonal workers are extremely conscientious, in large measure because of the promise that they might be brought on full time. As suggested earlier, this rarely happens, but the very possibility can strongly orient JTPs to strong performance of their jobs.

Unequal Allocation and Investment

Refashioning the public labor force in a neoliberal direction is complex because it does not rely on any single strategy of extracting value from the labor process. Nevertheless,the particular combinations of labor practices in evidence across parks maintenance in New York City suggest that parks located near more valuable real estate are better maintained and are more likely to have private management and private maintenance employees. The Report Card issued periodically by New Yorkers for Parks, an elite advocacy group, showed that in 2007, the best-maintained parks were Bryant Park and Public Place in Battery Park City. Conservancies privately manage both parks. Conversely, the report card's authors write:

As five years of survey results have shown, individual park conditions fluctuate from year to year depending on maintenance. Frequently, parks that rely solely on public funding do not receive consistent care and are subject to irregular maintenance levels (New Yorkers for Parks, 2007:11).

Further, these parks are most reliant on seasonal fluctuations in the JTP program and chronic staff shortages and shortages of equipment, such as vans or pickup trucks in which to drive mobile JTP crews, or paper towels and toilet paper, especially in the summer months. (10)

The unevenness of resource allocation can be manifest at a very local level. For example, in one borough outside of Manhattan, in an area that has working-class homeowners and more middle-class and even gentrifying neighborhoods, a park supervisor explained to us that one playground, next to middle-income condominiums filled with young, white professionals and artists with young children, had a fixed-post City Park Worker assigned to it. Only JTP mobile crews cleaned other playgrounds in her district, (11) including a very well used one with several baseball fields. These playgrounds did not get the same level of care. The difference? The families in the first playground had the resources--time, money, and clout with the local community board--to protect "their" fixed-post park worker, should that worker ever be threatened with reassignment. In fact, she said, the worker would be better deployed as a driver for another mobile crew, even though, in principle, she thought that fixed-post park workers were better for parks maintenance.

Private Value

New Yorkers for Parks (2009: 2) puts the issue succinctly:
   [A] growing body of evidence suggests that the benefits of parks
   accrue to a greater extent to landowners in close proximity to
   parks. Within the past few years, methodologically sound studies by
   New Yorkers for Parks, the Friends of Hudson River Park, and the
   Central Park Conservancy--with the assistance of strategic
   partners--have demonstrated this correlation.

   Owners benefit from higher land values, higher commercial and
   residential lease rates, and lower tenant turnover.... At the same
   time, parks that are maintained in good condition also contribute
   to local economic development, provide greater returns to the
   surrounding community, and could potentially host more financially
   viable concessions.

New Yorkers for Parks writes this to argue for diversifying the revenue streams available to parks, based at least partly on the concession and tax arrangements available to the privately managed flagship parks. In addition, they suggest that where parks raise property values, the parks system as a whole should benefit from a tax surcharge or increment on the new value, creating some measure of cross-subsidy within the system.

What is notable, however, is that neither in their report cards on parks nor in their advocacy for new revenue sources does New Yorkers for Parks mention the labor costs associated with maintenance or transfer of funds for supplies from the welfare system (with JTP/POP), "Friends of" organizations, and corporate volunteer programs. Though these may not be significant sources of revenue in dollar terms, they are critical for districts to enable their workers to work. Further, the failure to account for who does the work of maintenance and under what kinds of employment conditions masks the fact that "standard" full-time and seasonal public-sector workers cost more in the longer and shorter terms than do workers doing equivalent tasks in JTP and community service, and so require increased spending. Completely contingent workers are unpredictable, but they are considerably cheaper and easier to hire and fire and do not have the right to vest into municipal pension and healthcare funds.

Accordingly, if alternative streams of funding are justified on the basis of the developmental capacities of parks for real estate and commercial activity, it is nevertheless true that if non-contingent workers maintained parks, it would eat into park-generated profits significantly more than it would under the current status quo. In a city where the mayor argues, as Michael Bloomberg recently did, that "it costs too much" to hire public employees (Toor, 2010), linking park maintenance to private revenue streams will mean increased commercialization of park space, higher concession costs, and downward pressure on labor, pension, and other associated costs of public, full-time employees.

Already, the city has experience with parks funding a great deal of their operations through concessions and fees for special events, and one with Business Improvement District tax surcharges. Further, several parks, such as the southern extension of Manhattan's Riverside Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, were developed in conjunction with private real estate projects, and the developers agreed to fund the maintenance of the parks. The question is at what level of expense in maintenance, and under what conditions of work, these linkage deals will continue. Further, as conservancies govern increasing numbers of new parks from the outset, important questions arise about how extensively they will undermine public employment, public employee unions, and the civil service system.


It is important to understand that the workforce regime that developed in New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation represents broader changes in the private and public-sector workforce since the 1970s. This is part of the reason that these changes have been implemented with relatively little resistance. The vast expansion of workfare under Mayor Giuliani induced a broad movement of community organizations, anti-poverty advocates, religious figures, and labor unions. In contrast, the privatization of parks administration, the proliferation of work statuses, segmentation of workforces, damaging of civil service and internal labor markets, and devalorization of maintenance work through this segmentation and widespread move toward volunteer labor have unfolded gradually, but seemingly inexorably.

The neoliberalization of the public-sector workforce in New York City bears all the hallmarks of the global neoliberal project: discourses of crisis that call for private-sector intervention (Bryant Park, Central Park) and private control of public resources; cross-fertilization of arenas in crisis (the institution of workfare to solve the welfare crisis while providing "free labor" to cash-starved agencies such as the DPR); a new set of ameliorative programs (e.g., JTP/POP) to enable the poor to be "self-sufficient" while threatening already established jobs and job ladders; the proliferation of partnerships and the language of civic engagement and "giving back" that includes the mobilization of thousands, even tens of thousands, of volunteers; and the opening of new avenues for wealth generation and increased class power for owners of local capital. These performances are familiar to any student of the neoliberal governance project and speak to this project's hegemonic coherence (Harvey, 2005; see also Thomas, 2010). This coherence is important, because, taken separately, workfare is quite different from volunteering, and people in workfare programs and volunteers know the difference. Volunteers, who play an increasing role in displacing the need for regular park workers, will sometimes call workfare by the same name as did many workfare workers, and even many of their supervisors--slavery. Similarly, being underpaid as a JTP worker relative to CPWs is different from being underpaid because one is compelled, as a CPW, to do out-of-title work or its functional equivalent. (12) And being underpaid, with worse benefits, than a public worker as a conservancy worker is vastly different from being employed at similar skill levels with many private employers. (13)

Further, the language of partnership and citizenship obfuscates something even more fundamental, namely, that the neoliberal governance project in parks reinforces existing social differences. Most of the time, the main providers of "discount" labor, JTPs and volunteers, come from very different social backgrounds. When WEP was prevalent, some volunteer coordinators made efforts to keep them apart. Said one:
   why is some corporate bigwig who's getting paid $250,000 a year, is
   taking the day off from his hotshot job to rake up leaves in the
   park, when this person who benefits is sitting on the bench doing
   nothing? How does that look? It's horrible. It looks terrible. So I
   can't ask some guy to work for nothing when somebody who's getting
   paid by their benefits is sitting around doing nothing.

Though not all volunteers fit the description of this corporate volunteer, the gulf between the ways in which their labor and that of JTPs and WEPs is viewed by management remains. Moreover, nearly three-quarters of JTP workers are female and over 90% are African American and Latina, whereas supervisory staff in the department is still disproportionately white and male. According to many reports and the inclusion of anti-sexual-harassment segments in JTP training, harassment and a kind of economy in sex are endemic to the department. They serve as an adjunct to the reinforcement of work discipline via JTP workers' aspirations for a better life.

All of this suggests that a distinguishing feature of the neoliberal project's coherence is its ability to impose incoherence on alternatives. As critical commentators on post-Fordist governance have suggested, there is no single path to neoliberal governance and no single set of programs defines "actually existing" neoliberalism (e.g., Brenner and Theodore, 2002). Jessop (2002) argues that contemporary governance involves not just neoliberal, profit-oriented strategies, but also neocommunitarian, neostatist, and neocorporatist ones. We see all of these in the DPR as well. Beyond any typological analysis lies the more fundamental question of how and why these strategies work together. They do so primarily by allocating similar work among people who otherwise share little in common, and by ensuring that a good deal of the park maintenance functions are performed by workers in a vast turnover pool. The costs--bearable for now--lie in the unpredictability of public services. Parks supervisors cannot know who will be working in their districts on a given day, and cannot plan well for regular maintenance since fewer people experienced in maintenance are promoted through the ranks than before. To the extent that conservancies can overcome these barriers by managing their own workforces, they obscure the dynamics that obtain in the less-wealthy neighborhood parks. As Katz (2006: 112) writes:
   The uneven development and care for [parks and playgrounds] ...
   suggest that the wealthy do not view these spaces as
   expendable--for themselves--but the private ways by which the
   privileged increasingly secure their own access to the outdoor
   environment ensures that safe, attractive outdoor spaces will
   become a luxury for working-class and poor neighborhoods in the

This unevenness will be compounded as the city faces increasing financial constraints. Recent proposals to save money reduce the working year of regular park workers to nine or six months. When much of the remaining public maintenance staff is made seasonal, basic maintenance will fail in all but those parks with private year-round staff, even if public workers are replaced by new infusions of workfare workers. Then the parks--the quintessential public space--will become, more than ever, the site of multiple layers of inequality.



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(1.) This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0848590. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Support also came from the Charles Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York and from the IDHE laboratory of CNRS at Paris X, Nanterre. Thanks to Samantha Halsey, Kenn Vance, and Marcela Gonzalez for valuable research assistance, including interviews cited here, and to Shoshana Seid-Green for fast and accurate transcription. We are grateful to workers, managers, and volunteers in the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and to various private parks groups for sharing their experiences with us.

(2.) It is not standard practice to include volunteers when considering public-sector work, but as we argue below, doing so is critical for understanding the range of work arrangements that contribute to parks maintenance. For a more thorough consideration of volunteering as work, see Simonet (2010).

(3.) Throughout, we use "manager" and "supervisor" interchangeably, and neither refers to the civil service title, but to a higher position in the parks hierarchy than the people doing the maintenance and cleaning work. This is to protect the confidentiality of our sources.

(4.) The Hudson River Park Trust is a "public benefit corporation" chartered by New York State and run by a board with members jointly appointed by the city and state. Because funding for Hudson River Park initially came from both the city and the state, a separate corporation was created to operate it. As a separate corporation, however, it is beyond the ambit of civil service. Currently, park maintenance workers are under the purview of the Doe Fund, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that employs formerly homeless men at just above minimum wage.

(5.) The Parks Opportunity Program (POP) was the original name given to JTP. With the significant changes of 2003, that became the name most associated with the education and training component of the job.

(6.) Though proportions have changed somewhat in the last three years, in 2007 the number of City Parks Workers and Associate Park Service Workers across the city's five boroughs was 999, while the number of Job Training Program participants was 2,220 (see City of New York, 2010; New Yorkers for Parks, 2007).

(7.) The numbers fluctuate by year. DPR reports increasing job placements, but does not report the kind or quality of job (full time, part time, temporary, etc.). In 2008, for example, DPR reported 1,404 job placements from POP. More than 7,300 people entered the POP program as JTPs, though a smaller fraction of those finished. See Parks Opportunity Program presentation, online at http://peerta.acf.hhs. gov/uploadedFiles/LizaEhrlich.pdf, also New York City payroll data available at http://seethroughny. net/payrolls/.

(8.) District Council 37 is the main union representing city employees and the first contract it signed with the city in 1961 covered laborers in the Parks Department. Despite an energetic and militant organizing history, for the most part it has quietly abetted the neoliberalization of the city workforce. Amid a widespread corruption scandal in the mid-to-late 1990s, District Council 37 allowed the expansion of unpaid workfare to an unprecedented degree. Forced by its national union to try to organize workfare workers--the national union paid for the organizer--it mounted a half-hearted campaign for nearly a year, but did nothing to represent them (see Krinsky, 2007). The national union also paid for the organizer of the CPC campaign.

(9.) An interview with a top Parks Department manager indicated the same problem with .ITP. He said that he would like to increase the time worked by JTPs. In its 2012 budget proposal, however, the DPR will move more than 1,500 "regular" parks workers into seasonal employment to save money (New Yorkers for Parks, 2010).

(10.) The headquarters of one park district we visited was festooned with photocopies of a supervisor's exhortations to others: "Conserve supplies like it is World War Two!" In contrast, Central Park has a warehouse full of supplies.

(11.) To protect the identity of our interviewees, the gender of pronouns is purposefully inconsistent.

(12.) Out-of-title work is a technical term. Whether a worker has been asked to do such work and to be paid for it is decided through grievance and arbitration procedures. We frequently find, for example, that CPWs are asked to supervise and drive JTPs to a worksite in a pickup truck instead of a van. Because crew chiefs drive the vans--even if the same number of JTPs shows up to work that day--they are paid the crew-chief differential, whereas the CPW are not. These are distinctions without a real difference.

(13.) This is not universally true. In fact, a growing sector of low-skilled work, security services, is increasingly unionized in New York City. So it pays better wages and benefits than does maintenance work for a conservancy. The same is true for many office maintenance service firms. This led to a kerfuffle between the main janitor's union and District Council 37, which represents JTPs, when the city decided to de-privatize the cleaning of a city office building, shedding better-paid, unionized, private workers for JTPs.

John Krinsky and Maud Simonet *

* JOHN KRINSKY is assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York (e-mail: MAUO SIMONET is a researcher from the National Center for Scientific Research at IDHE/Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre (e-mail:
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Author:Krinsky, John; Simonet, Maud
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Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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