After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Bette Midler moved back to New York. But when she got there, she was unsettled by the garbage that she spotted everywhere. “It was unbelievable,” says the Tony-winning actress. “There were couches in the trees. There were burned-out cars by the road, and it just seemed as if the city had given up. And I’m not the kind of person that lets things go. I always feel like it’s up to me to fix it.”
Midler picked up a shovel and went to work. “At first, we cleaned Fort Tryon Park, which was desolate,” Midler says. “It was a drug haven. They said we would not finish that for about 10 years, and we finished it in about three years. And it’s glorious now!”
It wasn’t too long until Midler realized that she had a new calling beyond the stage or screen. In 1995, she founded the New York Restoration Project to clean and restore green spaces in the five boroughs. Since then, the nonprofit has helped plant 1 million trees in underserved areas, replenish 80 acres of parkland and protect 110 community gardens. Midler hasn’t been afraid to get her hands dirty. She’s even pitched in to help pick up the trash — 5 million pounds of it — that volunteers have cleared from public spaces.
“It’s astonishing to see what a little care and attention can do,” Midler says. “How it can change the neighborhood. How it can change people’s lives. It’s very rewarding.”
Research shows that this kind of work isn’t just good for the earth. Neighborhoods with gardens and parks have lower crime rates, because residents feel a sense of ownership over their communities. For example, according to a study, after the NYRP added 1 million square feet of green space in East Harlem, there have been 213 fewer felonies there per year.
“First of all, it’s an activity,” Midler says. “It makes people feel good about themselves. They feel like, ‘Oh, somebody does care.’ It’s not just some dump.”
The website for NYRP features before-and-after photos, to showcase how volunteers have radically transformed such beloved landmarks as Highbridge Park in Manhattan, Mildred T. Rhodebeck Garden in the Bronx and Essex Street Community Garden in Brooklyn. And don’t forget to visit a special place in the Bronx that bears Midler’s name. “For my 60th birthday, my board of directors took one of the lots and called it Bette’s Garden,” Midler says. “It’s a rose garden, because they think of me as a rose.”
She earns that name based on the two fundraising activities she hosts a year: a spring picnic and a Halloween party. “It’s called Hulaween, because I’m from Hawaii,” Midler says of the gala, where she’s been seen dressed as Winifred Sanderson, her deliciously spooky witch from “Hocus Pocus.” She’s enlisted her A-list friends, including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Sheryl Crowe, Patti LaBelle and Jon Bon Jovi, as entertainers. “Most of the money that we raise for the work comes from that party.”
It’s not lost on Midler how important it is to care about the environment, given that Donald Trump doesn’t believe in global warming. “Climate change is real,” Midler says. “It’s actually the most important story of the age. I think about it every day. I worry about the oceans and the fact that there’s so much plastic now and people are so wasteful. That’s a terrible sin to me.”