How NYC parks emerged from their lawless days

May 4, 2012, 3:34 PM UTC

NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

FORTUNE — There’s a countdown clock in the room next to Adrian Benepe’s office, ticking off the days until the end of the Bloomberg Administration. When the clock hits zero, it will probably also mark the end of Benepe’s run as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation, a position he calls the best job in New York.

Benepe is a rare species — a New York-bred naturalist. He grew up in New York City parks, and then climbed the ladder at Parks & Recreation.

New York City’s parks are in a league of their own, he says. For one, they’re involved in massive public-private partnerships. The city’s two flagship parks – Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Manhattan’s Central Park — are maintained by conservancies. Benepe has to manage those relationships along with everything else that goes on in the 29,000 acres of New York City parkland.

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He recently spoke to Fortune about the emergence of New York City parks from the system’s previously lawless days and how they led him to the Queen of England. An edited transcript is below.

Fortune: We have these beautiful parks now, but they weren’t always this way, right?

Adrian Benepe: I grew up in the parks of New York City. As a teenager, I got a summer job at the Parks Department. For two weeks, I worked at a swimming pool on the Lower East Side between Avenues C and D on 10th Street. Then they moved me over to East River Park across the FDR Drive.

Our main task was cleaning up beer cans after the softball games. At the time, East River and many other parks were lawless places, there were basically no rules enforced of any kind. It was the 1970s. Even Central Park was a joke. Every night, Johnny Carson would make jokes about getting mugged in Central Park, except he wasn’t joking. If you went to Central Park, you had a good chance of getting mugged.

Now they’re pretty well maintained, and people flock to these parks.

I get to meet a lot of interesting people because the life of New York City really takes place around the parks.

I’ve met most of the members of the British Royal Family. We have a garden in lower Manhattan in memory of British citizens and members of the commonwealth countries who died in the attacks on 9/11. At each stage as the garden evolved, a different member of the Royal Family would come celebrate it. So I met every member there except Queen Elizabeth who I then met at a subsequent event.

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You met the Queen?

Yes, I met the Queen. My mother, who is no longer alive, would not have believed that I would ever meet the Queen. So that was pretty wild.

What is your craziest story from working in the parks for so many years?

The best ones I can’t tell you.

Oh, this was kind of a wacky incident. I was at the model boat pond in Central Park, and apparently a person had gotten drunk and fallen in and drowned. And I was there just as the body was being removed on a winter’s day. And there was sort of this strange Central Park moment when Garrison Keillor walked by right as a body was lifted out of the water. I don’t think he ever did a bit about it on Prairie Home Companion.

How is your job different from the jobs of past commissioners?

There is an almost overwhelming amount of information. The commissioner 30 years ago didn’t have 100 emails coming in all day. It’s all day long, every day, and into the night, seven days a week. Particularly during the busy season, we oversee all the beaches and pools.

You can say, on a given day, this agency and, to an extent, I, have a responsibility for the health, safety, and welfare of a couple million people.

What is the most difficult challenge you face?

There are many different opinions as to what should take place in parks, and they’re all valid. For example, some people think that a park should just be a place for walking your dog and others think there shouldn’t be dogs at all. And some are in between, so it’s a constant balancing act.

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Every square inch is contested. The parks are so used. In some cases, we couldn’t put another person in them. Central Park has 38 million visits a year. People love to go to Summer Stage concerts in Central Park, but the people living across the street don’t like hearing the music.

But the most difficult aspect is that we’ve had budget cuts for the last three years. We’ve lost about 22% of our staff through attrition over the last four years because of a hiring freeze. So we haven’t had to lay anybody off but we’ve had to do things like reduce pruning contracts. Our lives as park managers have become more challenging, trying to do the proverbial more with less.

Yet you still like your job?

It’s the best job in New York. It’s very demanding, but I guess the only regret is that, at a certain point, it will be over.

It’s been particularly gratifying to be in this position for the last 10 years. We’ve been in the largest park expansion and development since the 1930s because we have a mayor who believes in the parks as linchpins for the community. Even before he became mayor, Bloomberg was on the board of Central Park Conservancy.

All of us in the Bloomberg Administration know our days are numbered. I can tell you, we probably have 614 days or so.