February 28th, 2002

Let's Park the Naming-Rights Plan

By Carrie McLaren
New York Newsday

New Yorkers are a little like Texans: We brag about the place we call home and swear there is no place quite like it. But where Texans take pride in their land and theirtough-guy independence, New Yorkers lay claim to an exceptional civic spirit, a commitment to diversity and a rich cultural life.

So when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his proposal to offer corporations naming rights to city parks and other facilities, it was only natural for many New Yorkers to recoil in horror. The mayor’s plans also call for selling space in city parks - including pools and recreation centers - to advertisers. The budget crisis New York faces is indeed a serious one. But these attempts to mend the city promise only to do it harm.

Some people may wonder, "What’s the big deal?" When you look at any instance of sponsorship individually, the harm seems trivial: "What’s wrong with a few more signs? Or a ShopRite recreation center?" Only when considered cumulatively are the deleterious effects of commercialism visible. Part of the problem is that advertising invariably leads to more and more invasive forms of advertising. The current budget plan, which focuses on new parks and developments, does not endanger Central Park - but what about in five or 10 years, when another crunch presents itself?

Our parks are one of few respites New Yorkers have from the whirlwind buy-and-sell of city life. We go to them to get away from working and shopping. Commercialization will make the parks a little less "ours" and more like what we are trying to escape: the familiar slogans, expensive brands, and scantily clad models that line the subways and, for that matter, the outdoors of the rest of the country.

Though the mayor cites Sept. 11 as a catalyst for the proposal, efforts to commercialize the city have been under way for years. The board of education has long been trying to establish an advertising-funded Web portal; Coca-Cola signed an exclusive contract with Prospect Park over a year ago; former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once rented Central Park to American Express; and, in fact, plans to commercialize the parks were drafted by the Giuliani administration well over a year ago. The parks’ shortfall stems from a lack of priorities or chronic underfunding, not Sept. 11.

New Yorkers should, of course, applaud corporations that donate money to the city. By all means, let’s give them a plaque and engrave their names on a wall at City Hall. But philanthropy shouldn’t be about branding and kickbacks. There are clear costs with corporate sponsorship. And though the mayor deserves respect for wrestling with difficult decisions, one gets the feeling that he doesn’t even consider commercialization a liability; that he doesn’t understand the difference between charity and marketing.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has promised not to do anything "grotesque" or "inappropriate" to the parks. Yet Benepe also says new parks will resemble the mom-and-pop stores plastered with Pepsi signs - as if having parks look like grocery stores isn’t inappropriate.

The mayor likes to congratulate himself for "thinking outside the box," but his lack of imagination is clear when you consider some of the other places that have embraced corporate sponsorship:

Halfway, Ore., sold naming rights to the town to Half.com; Sacramento, Calif., has city sponsorships with beverage and telecommunications companies; places such as Lynn, Mass., and Huntington Beach, Calif., have exclusive contracts with Coca-Cola, so that only Coke products can be sold at public facilities and events; Milwaukee, Wis., has proposed putting corporate logos on garbage trucks and selling naming rights for buildings and streets.

The rest of the country has long looked to New York for arts and ideas. If Bloomberg’s office goes ahead with his plans, then New Yorkers will be not cultural leaders, but followers.

Assuming that advertising dollars can sustain our parks is dangerously short-sighted. Parks and recreation centers are public resources precisely because the private sector - with its sole concern in profitability - doesn’t support them. Once small signs and subtle names lose their novelty, sponsors will inevitably want more: sponsored water fountains and flower beds, billboards, electronic kiosks and who knows what else.

Bloomberg’s administration should resist degrading the parks through commercialization and act now to establish clear boundaries - written policies - on corporate sponsorship. Without strict guidelines, what may now seem outrageous will be the norm in a few years. New Yorkers will wake up one day to find ourselves amidst an American Express Park, a Coca-Cola Bridge and a city that no longer belongs to us. If New York adopts the sponsorship schemes that have swayed other cities, then Bloomberg’s legacy will be not in saving New York, but in abandoning it.

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