The reservoir's historic structures & ecosystems are an opportunity to create a unique environmental education center for our children & their future.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Death of a Park Advocate

The New York Times just ran the following article. It may not be specific to Ridgewood Reservoir and Highland Park, but it shows what determination can accomplish.

M. M. Graff Is Dead at 97; Fought for New York’s Parks

By Douglas Martin
Published: July 22, 2007

M. M. Graff, a self-trained master gardener who became a New York legend by nudging, nagging and scolding — but seldom sweet-talking — in her crusade to improve the city parks she loved almost as much as she loathed her given name, Mildred, died at her home in Brooklyn on July 9. She was 97.

Tupper Thomas, the administrator of Prospect Park and recipient of not a few critical missives from Ms. Graff, announced the death.

Ms. Thomas called Ms. Graff both “naughty” and “wonderful,” saying she was “a lone voice” for improving Prospect Park in the 1960s and ’70s when it was unclean, untended and unsafe. Ms. Graff was a leader in successful efforts at the park to save trees like the magnificently gnarled Camperdown elm, landscapes like the Vale of Cashmere and buildings like the Boathouse. In Central Park, Ms. Graff helped start the movement to revive the great landscapes as natural history laboratories, said Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, a founder of the Central Park Conservancy.

Henry J. Stern, a former parks commissioner, said Ms. Graff was “really a generation or two ahead of her time” in her passion for and proficiency at advocating for parks. But, he said, she had little use for diplomacy. “She would take the view that everything we did was wrong,” he said.

In an interview with Brooklyn: A Magazine of the Other City in 1988, the woman who called herself “a dragon” and whom friends called “Dickey” added characteristic flair to Mr. Stern’s point: “There hasn’t been a parks commissioner since I’ve been here who knew which end of a tree to put into the ground.”

Ms. Graff rode on the back of an arborist’s truck in Central Park through the 1970s, directing the pruning of trees with early signs of Dutch elm disease. She wrote “Flowers in the Winter Garden” and other books on gardening. She studied park histories and came up with new interpretations in books and pamphlets.

Most controversial was her assertion in 1982 that Calvert Vaux was more important than Frederick Law Olmsted in designing Central Park. In a pamphlet sent to park devotees and, later, in her book “Central Park-Prospect Park: A New Perspective,” she cast Olmsted as a novice learning at the feet of Vaux, and she blamed Olmsted for mistakes like planting aggressive alien plants. “Horticulture is a profession in which no unqualified person ever hesitates to meddle,” she wrote. “Olmsted was no exception.” The New York Times said it was the equivalent of denouncing Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Ms. Graff could also turn poetic about the natural things she loved. When a 300-year-old great American elm in Prospect Park was toppled by a storm in 1972, she said to The Times, “Where that majesty stood there is now just a sigh in the air.”

Mildred Millar was born in St. Davids, Pa. She said she began gardening as soon as she could crawl. Her mother’s father and grandfather were nurserymen from England. At 3, the family moved to Forest Hills, in Queens; she remembered long walks with her father in Forest Park collecting acorns to feed the deer. She majored in English at Mount Holyoke College, graduated magna cum laude and married John Filson Graff soon after graduation. While living in Manhasset, N.Y., and Tenafly, N.J., she wrote about gardening for The New York Times, Popular Gardening and other publications. She was divorced after 30 years of marriage.

Ms. Graff then moved to Brooklyn, hoping, she said, that a single person would be less conspicuous there than in the suburbs. She worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for $3 an hour and finished her winter gardens book. Even though the Botanic Garden is across the street from Prospect Park, she ignored the park until she saw a slide show on it at the Brooklyn Camera Club. Her first campaign there was to find financing for the healing of the very sick, very eccentric Camperdown elm, given to the park in 1872. It recovered and looks robust this summer. She wrote books on trees and other phenomena in Central Park and Prospect Park that the Greensward Foundation, a park support group, published.

Ms. Graff is survived by her son, John Filson Graff Jr., of St. Thomas, Pa., and two grandchildren. Lola Horwitz, a friend of Ms. Graff’s, said Ms. Graff had never stopped writing to seed companies to point out that they had described a color incorrectly. In later years, friends helped tend her beloved garden, but she sometimes ventured out alone with her walker, fell and crawled back. She declined invitations to see generally admired landscaping improvements in Prospect Park, fearing disappointment.

In an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1967, Ms. Graff did concede that a garden might not have to be perfect to be nice. She quickly added, “It just does for me.”

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1 comment:

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

This sounds like me in fifty years [g].