Four-time Grammy winner and self- confessed glitz queen Bette Midler enters an East Harlem lot at her characteristic hip-swaying march, swapping the outsize pink feather headdress of her Las Vegas show for gardening gloves.
Midler is here to open a community garden next to an abandoned tenement, the 33rd oasis her New York Restoration Project has transformed from garbage-strewn wasteland.
“I always say get the trash off the streets and onto the stage where it belongs,” said Midler in an interview after snipping a garland to open the lush, green space.
Celebrities may start charities on a whim and drop by for a photo-op or two, but Midler has been helping clean up New York for more than a decade, raising funds and spurring clean-and- green programs throughout the city.
The star of films including “Ruthless People” and “Beaches” got her start crooning at gay bathhouses and performing as a mermaid in a wheelchair. She said she became involved in improving New York parks in 1994 because she was appalled at how dirty the city was compared to her native Hawaii.
“To tell the truth, I’m not the greatest gardener in the world,” said Midler after inspecting nature-game tables and a child-sized house at the opening. “But I have a tremendous appreciation for nature.”
She collaborated with neighborhood gardeners who had made derelict areas bloom, adding value to abandoned lots foreclosed by New York City. To avoid an auction of the garden plots, the Restoration Project made a deal to take ownership of dozens of them in 1999.
“We ended up with 51 gardens that were homeless orphans,” Midler said, adding that about 20 still need restoration. With a $6 million annual budget, the Restoration Project now partners with the city in a massive street-tree planting program that Midler said is 20 percent ahead of schedule this year.
The Harlem project, on East 117th Street, is part of a move into improving children’s education. Midler called it “a learning garden.” She introduced Akiima Price, the project’s chief of education, a beaming young woman with a six-foot snake slithering around her neck. Midler said Price’s job was to allay city kids’ “terror of being in nature.”
The Restoration Project has grown by partnering with communities, and persuading foundations, retailers and financial corporations to help improve neighborhoods their officers may never have heard of.
Home Depot Help
The Home Depot Foundation sponsored the 117th Street garden. The Arbor Day Foundation shaped the education program. Residents of the block and East Harlem Cares will maintain the garden and run its programs.
“Kids from all over the neighborhood will be able to get their hands dirty, will be able to meet animals, and learn how things grow,” said Midler.
Midler has used her star power to wrangle celebrities from Martha Stewart and Tony Bennett to rapper 50 Cent for fundraising and garden sponsorships. She’s involved well-known landscape designers including Ken Smith, Walter Hood, and Lynden Miller.
A stretch of the Harlem River has been restored to a natural state as Swindler Cove Park and the Restoration Project is now working on a master plan for the entire river. Swindler Cove Park features a brightly painted boathouse designed by Robert A. M. Stern with Armand LeGardeur.
“Rowing is the kind of sport that gets you into a good college,” said Midler. After the opening and a fundraiser, the gardening gloves are off and the pink-feather headdress is on for her show at Caesars Palace. “Yes, I’m a glitz queen,” she said, smiling.
The gardens are not feel-good marketing opportunities parachuted into neighborhoods. The Harlem garden, for example, began two years ago with a street-tree planting effort with the city and AmeriCorps.
“We do a lot of outreach in communities and find out what they’re looking for,” Midler said. “Every community and block is different.”
While many have garden plots, others have kids’ play spaces, performance stages, “or just a place for people to kick up their feet.” A couple are solar powered, and others collect rainwater from the roof of adjacent buildings for plant watering.
“One has an area for yoga, so now the whole neighborhood comes out and does yoga,” Midler said in a note of wonder. “This is a very different city from what it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at email@example.com.