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France Honors William T. Castro

On July 8, 2021, Gaëtan Bruel, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy awarded William T. Castro with the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. As Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner, Bill Castro has helped bring French culture to New Yorkers across the city by partnering with the French Embassy for the annual Films on the Green Festival. 

Ladies and gentlemen, 

As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, I am delighted to welcome you to the Order of Arts and Letters ceremony honoring Mr. William Castro, who will receive the insignia of Officer of this Order, here in the Florence Gould Garden of our headquarters at the Payne Whitney Mansion in New York. A special welcome to our guests who have joined on Zoom for this celebration. 

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French Minister of Culture to recognize eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Our distinguished honoree this evening, Bill Castro, has enriched the lives of millions of New Yorkers with imaginative initiatives that build community through public parks and that contribute ultimately to the well-being of New Yorkers. In addition, Bill has brought a new dimension to the cultural offerings of parks by partnering with the French Embassy on curated French film screenings in the parks. In 2014, the French government awarded him the 1st step or rank in this order (chevalier). Tonight, he is being recognized with the higher rank of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters for his important role in guiding boldly and thoughtfully the dynamic interplay between parks and New York city-dwellers, including his crucial role in the success of the outdoor cinema program, Films on the Green.

Dear Bill,

While the trend towards urbanization accelerates throughout the world, metropolitan gardens and city parks appear today as the beating heart of the urban space, where city-dwellers, most of whom live in small apartments, may revitalize themselves both physically and mentally. During this year of lockdowns and social distancing, parks have provided a safe haven and essential connection to nature for countless urbanites, nowhere more than in New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic in this country. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill, you understand how parks are key landmarks of the urban space, encouraging socializing and creating a sense of community within a city. This social character of public parks seems to be particularly close to your heart if we look at your remarkable career, which testifies to a longstanding commitment to advocacy in public health and wellness. Indeed, after earning a BA in Drama from the University of Virginia – which underlines your early interest in the arts and hints at your future as a treasured friend of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy – you served as New York City Councilman Antonio Oliviera’s Aide and Chief of Staff, with responsibility for the subcommittee on adult homes. In this role, you also addressed challenges dealing with urban and health policies and programs.

Since 1981, you have been involved in the urban park service of New York City, assuming roles that would progressively allow you to connect your advocacy for community well-being with urban public areas. From 1985 to 1991, you worked first as Chief of Recreation, then as Assistant Commissioner for Recreation. With boundless energy, tenacity, and enthusiasm, you successfully managed 21 recreation centers, 7 senior centers, 39 pre-schools, 50 day camps, and 3 homeless youth centers. It’s safe to say your work during this period improved the lives of countless New Yorkers. 

Driven by a strong desire for positive change, you chose to reinforce your leadership skills and expertise in public policy, completing a Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard in 1983. You were then appointed Bronx Borough Commissioner, and in 2002 became Manhattan Borough Commissioner, serving the Department of Parks and Recreation. In these positions, you showed a deep commitment to turn urban parks into more welcoming community gathering places. For example, your collaboration with Commissioner Silver on the “Parks without Borders” initiative helped to make the parks more accessible and inviting to everyone. Within the scope of an ambitious project to revitalize New York City public parks, cultural programs and events take on particular importance as culture provides an indisputable link between individuals and communities, helping to overcome political and social divisions.

In this regard, the creation of our Films on the Green Festival, a free outdoor French film festival in New York City parks organized annually by the French Embassy, FACE Foundation, and NYC Parks, simply would not have been possible without your steadfast support. You were the first person we reached out to and the first person to say “Yes” to our ambitious project. Driven by your commitment to engage park-goers -- and enticed perhaps by a certain francophile bent -- you were the one who really opened the door to make this festival happen.

Launched in 2008 as a community-oriented festival, Films on the Green reaches out to audiences in the heart of their own neighborhoods —in parks and community gardens across New York City. Since then, the festival has grown tremendously: In 2019, with the help of 28 sponsors and partners, it presented 13 free screenings in 9 different parks to more than 7,000 attendees across New York City. Many administrators and staff members of NYC Parks contribute to the success of this program. Leading this team, Bill, you stand out as a unique partner of Films on the Green. Unfailing enthusiasm and rock-solid mutual trust characterize this partnership; we at the embassy are the first to acknowledge your personal support. We also value your creative flexibility: for example, when L’Hermione sailed into NY harbor several years ago--a replica of the warship that carried Lafayette to help the colonists in the War of Independence--you helped us stage a Films on the Green screening for the occasion in Battery Park. For you, taking part in Films on the Green was also the opportunity – at least we hope – to give pride of place to your own love of theater , since one might consider our festival as a modern version of the famous open-air theaters which have been essential gathering spots from Antiquity to the present day. Films on the Green also reflects your passion for French culture and especially French film, sparked by your discovery in college of François Truffaut’s seminal work, “The Four Hundred Blows.” I am told that you spent time in libraries, reading cinema books while dreaming of being a director. Years later, contributing to Films on the Green unites your own love of culture with your commitment to the community.

As you know, the festival event attracts a diverse audience, mingling French film buffs with foreign-film novices with equal enthusiasm. For some years now, Films on the Green Festival has caught on in other cities where we have an embassy or consular office, such as Chicago and Boston. This year, we are launching Films on the Green in DC, produced in partnership with the National Gallery of Art, offering a selection of French films in spaces such as the U.S. National Arboretum, Anacostia Park, and the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall.

In New York, our 2021 edition of Films on the Green assumes an even greater symbolic meaning, as it is one of the first public events to take place in NYC following the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, more than ever, we feel a need to connect, and Films on the Green enables us to connect with audiences through our beautiful public parks. From July 9 to July 30, the festival will offer free screenings in four Manhattan parks, including a new location, Seward Park on the Lower East Side. This year, in an effort to gather, and even represent, the different communities of New York City, our films will showcase cinema and soundtracks from around the globe, including Mexico, Tunisia, Japan, Niger, and Spain.

Thanks to you and your team, the city’s parks have a new lease on life and are seen today as living, dynamic spaces, not only because they constitute a realm of calm and greenery amidst the fast pace of life in New York, but also because they contribute to wellness. Indeed, the pandemic revealed to all how access to the parks, a precious outdoor oasis, is essential for New Yorkers of all ages and walks of life.

Dear Bill Castro, for your vast contribution to New York City’s outdoor, recreational and cultural life, and for your unfailing support of French culture through Films on the Green, it is my pleasure to bestow upon you the insignia of Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Cher William Castro, au nom de la Ministre de la Culture, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.