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Tulips on the Town: A Conversation with The Fund for Park Avenue’s Barbara McLaughlin


Each spring, thousands of tulips emerge from the verdant central malls along Park Avenue. Each year, they’re a different color—and every year they’re a declaration of hope for the changing season. Many New Yorkers cherish their emergence without knowing the story behind their annual arrival. A non-profit known as The Fund For Park Avenue has long championed the maintenance and fundraising behind it. And no one has as much insight as Barbara McLaughlin, President of The Fund for the last 13 years.

Can you share a little bit about your history with the Upper East Side?

I have lived on the Upper East Side pretty much since I moved to New York City thirty-something years ago. I definitely walked along Park Avenue and enjoyed all the plantings and trees and never understood how it all happened until I started working for The Fund. It’s still a mystery to so many people today.

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What’s The Fund’s mission?

The Fund was created in 1980 with the specific mission to plant and maintain the Park Avenue malls. Originally, it was two plantings a year: the tulips in the spring and the begonias in the summer. We increased it to three, with mums in the fall. Our fourth “plantings” are around the fir trees in the winter, which we trim and string with lights.

How does The Fund achieve this?

We raise the money to hire professional landscapers that do the work on the malls. There are no big annual events. We raise our money through two annual appeals. People can donate via our website or be added to our mailing list.

Can you tell us about the annual tulip “dig”?

In the spring, after the tulips have bloomed, we let anyone who is interested come dig them up because you can

save them and replant them in your own garden. If we left them in, they wouldn’t necessarily come up with the same robustness each year. As soon as they bloom, people start calling the office asking if we’ve set a date for the dig. It gets more and more popular each year. It’s a hotly anticipated event. As is the excitement around the color each year.

How do you determine the color?

I have a list of all the different colors and I try to rotate them—and I try to tie them into an anniversary. My first year at The Fund, they were orange for the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in

New York harbor. For 2023, we are doing a color that we’ve never done before.

Can you tell me what community means to Park Avenue?

The gardens on the malls are Park Avenue’s “parkland.” While the avenue does have an “exclusive” reputation, it’s actually rather “inclusive” in that it is open to everyone. It’s a fantastic place to walk, run, enjoy the seasonal plantings and experience the exhibitions of public art presented by The Fund’s Sculpture Advisory Committee and NYC Parks.

And on two Saturday mornings in August, the entire avenue is closed to cars for “Summer Streets,” the Department of Transportation’s annual celebration of the city’s public space.

At certain times of the year, the seasonal plantings provide the backdrop for countless photos. Many of the trees

are dedicated with plaques in honor or memory of a loved one. And last summer, the begonias provided a safe hiding place for a puppy who had slipped its leash. In the winter, the illuminated fir trees always add a welcome glow to

the avenue during the Park Avenue Tree Lighting, which is the avenue’s oldest tradition, dating back to 1945 when Park Avenue families lit trees to honor those lost in World War II.

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