Former San Antonian makes her mark in iconic New York City Park
San Antonians have had an incredible impact on New York City’s park system — which might come as a surprise to many in the Alamo City. TPR spoke recently to one of those whose efforts have elevated a NYC park there to a new level.
The Battery is a 25-acre park at the bottom of Manhattan where the city’s towering skyline gives way to the Hudson and East Rivers, forming New York Harbor. The born-and-raised San Antonian Warrie Price is the park’s CEO.
“I'm Warrie Price. And welcome to the Battery,” she said.
The place where she sat for the interview didn’t even exist 200 years ago.
“Initially it was water where we're sitting right now. It's had successive landfills. The Dutch landfill, the British landfill, the early Americans landfill,” she said.
Price is energetic, showing TPR around the park, bounding up stairs like someone 20 years her junior. Born in San Antonio at Santa Rosa Hospital, she was raised to understand agriculture and her place in nature.
“My grandfather, Jean Martin Toudouze, had the largest John Deere implement dealership in the south. So I grew up on top of huge combines and tractors,” she said.
We spoke under the Battery’s towering trees, 50 yards from where boats loaded with tourists to take them to the Statue of Liberty in the Harbor. Texas seems especially distant here, but she says she brought her rearing with her.
“It was a childhood that, as I reflect back now to my life, was fundamental in giving me the principles that I live by and certainly how I've spent my professional life,” she said.
Price’s incredibly interesting life has a lot to do with her intelligence, creativity and drive. But some of how it played out is circumstance.
“My college roommate was Lynda Bird Johnson and the summer after our freshman year, she said, ‘You should come to Washington and visit us,’” said Price.
As it turns out her University of Texas roommate’s dad was the Vice President at the time. Price and Lynda Bird came to New York City for the first time in the summer of 1963 “catching a ride” as she puts it, on Marine 1, the Vice-Presidential helicopter. In fact, they landed on the Wall Street Piers, just a few hundred yards from where we were speaking. Her introduction to the big city made a lasting impression.
“You felt, as I did as an 18-year-old, the real dynamic of what was going on here. And I said, ‘Wow, now this is a city!’ And I never turned back,” Price said.
The summer of ’63 was also the swan song of the Kennedy Presidency. On Nov. 22 in Dallas, it was all over. Her memories of hearing about it are vivid.
“Lynda and I both had our tickets to go have dinner with President Kennedy, who was going to be in Austin that night,” she said. “And I was out on campus when I heard the news that he had been shot in Dallas, and so I raced back to the dorm.”
Lynda Bird didn’t yet know about the assassination, or that her father was about to become president.
“And I told her what I had heard and within moments the Secret Service were at the door and to take her into safety,” she said.
Suddenly, life at UT was impossible, due to security concerns. Lady Bird Johnson, to try and give her daughter’s a sense of normalcy, invited Price to move into the first family’s new home.
“We lived in the White House and we went to classes three days a week Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays,” Price said. “And the other two days we helped Mrs. Johnson do different duties of hostessing, and doing tours and really living a historic life that can only happen at the White House.”
She and Lynda Bird attended George Washington University together.
Back at The Battery, where TPR spoke to Price, nearby was the park’s enormous World War II Memorial. It was another odd connection tied to President Kennedy.
“He dedicated this in October of 1963, and this was his last visit to New York City before going to Dallas and his death,” she said.
History doesn’t just loom large here. It’s embedded to its core. And John Kennedy was hardly the first president to walk and be inspired by these grounds.
“George Washington's first headquarters was at 1 Broadway for the Continental Army, and his diary talks about, ‘I've got to go take a walk in the Battery,’” Price said.
While the idea seems almost silly now in the shadow of massive downtown high rises, diminutive Castle Clinton here at The Battery was built as a military bulwark against invasion. Price explained its Genesis.
“This is all during Jeffersonian re-fortification against the British for the War of 1812,” she said. “They [the British] looked at New York with all of these forts, and where did they go? To the Potomac. They burned Washington! So it worked.”
Though no wartime skirmishes occurred here, plenty of battles over what to do with the Battery have been fought here. Probably the largest was in the 1930s when New York City power broker Robert Moses proposed building a bridge to Brooklyn right through the Battery. After a long fight, it took no less than the President’s wife to defeat him.
“Eleanor Roosevelt fought a successful fight against Robert Moses, who wanted a bridge and would have destroyed the Battery,” she said.
Instead, he was forced to build his freeway in the form of a tunnel dozens of feet below where we sat.
“We have the Battery Brooklyn Tunnel, [at] 40 feet. When it was built, it was the deepest tunnel on the planet,” Price said.
That’s not the only thing that criss-crosses beneath the towering trees of The Battery. Price listed an entire network of subways and freeways that flowed beneath us.
“The underpass, the Brooklyn battery tunnel, the four and five subways, the number one in the RW,” she said. “So we've got a network of under the surface transportation linkages, probably more than any other park in the city.”
Back in Washington in the mid-60s, Price and Lynda Bird Johnson attended college together, but in time Price headed to Harvard. She graduated, taking her Master’s degree back to New York City where she worked for city government in various positions, specializing for about 15 years in parks.
“My civic life is that I had rebuilt eight parks above 59th Street,” she said.
Then she got a visit from another former San Antonian, Betsy Barlow Rogers, who had created the Central Park Conservancy. Through the Conservancy, Rogers had turned Central Park from the run-down, crime-ridden place it had been to the world class park it is now.
“So she was looking to kind of duplicate that model of public private partnerships in other parks that were needy,” Price said.
Indeed, the Battery was in-need. This was the front doorstep to New York City, but it wasn’t in 1993 the beautiful place it is now.
“It was awful looking. It was broken furniture. There were holes in the pavement,” Price said. “It was drab, disheartening, and that wasn't who we are as Americans.”
As Betsy Barlow Rogers knew, through Price’s years on various New York City parks boards she pretty well knew everyone. And she had one other skill that’s hard to find.
“I knew how to raise money. I sat on various nonprofit boards. I was a founder of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and ran the fundraiser for it here in New York,” she said.
From Price’s perspective, The Battery had a major problem: It had become a pass-through park, just a place people passed through to get to somewhere else. Her objective was to make it a destination park. Besides cleaning it up, her biggest innovation was in creating the Sea Glass Carousel.
“$16 million we raised for this incredible one of a kind sea glass carousel where there are four turntables. You are riding fish, you become fish. It's our nod to marine conservation to love the sea,” Price said.
Another effort to make The Battery a Destination park opened in the months after we spoke: The Playscape.
“When you come through the gate at Battery Playscape, you are free to roam to your heart's content,” Price said. “You climb boulders, you see plants, you run through mist.”
Several long slides are made of granite. Pits of sand invite kids to jump in and play. And the Playscape’s premise allows a kind of release for kids that Price said is hard to find in New York City.
“What we wanted to do is give you plenty of room to roam because children aren't free in New York City. They are supervised, they are watched every moment they leave their apartments ‘til they get to their destinations,” she said.
The Playscape represents the Battery’s last major construction project. So what’s next for Price?
“It's now securing the endowment, it's securing its sustainability,” she said.
The endowment would allow the park to pay its expenses through simple interest earned. How does Price pay for the park’s $3 million yearly expenses? Not through the city; the city doesn’t pay for the park. Price raises it all herself through The Battery Conservancy uses the same model Betsy Barlow Rogers used to pay for Central Park.
“She was the trailblazer that got the city to understand why they should accept this model. It wasn't easy,” she said. “No one understands what conservancies are. A small, tiny percentage of people understand this is all private funds.”
So each day is a slog: where to find the money to keep the Battery a living, breathing extension of the great public experiment that IS New York City? Not surprisingly, the lessons of another Texan give her energy and vision to do so: Lady Bird Johnson.
“If Mrs. Johnson taught me anything it’s you can't underestimate the power of beauty, and beauty given freely to everyone, no matter where you come from. And that's why these gardens mean so much to me,” she said.
There’s no place more New York than The Battery, and yet a San Antonian has forever put her South Texas style into it.