Meet the Controversial Hedge Fund Billionaire Who Made an Unprecedented $100 Million Gift to Central Park

John Paulson has played the role of hero and villain to New York City. The hedge fund billionaire and native New Yorker has been picketed by Occupy Wall Street protestors, gained and lost in the market over the years, and has been steadily building a name for himself as a top philanthropist (read Wall Street Donors). But however his legacy shakes out, he will no doubt add hero to Central Park to that track record, after making a record-breaking $100 million gift to the park in October.

The gift was by far the largest in the park's (and Paulson's) history, and is the headliner in a series of recent large donations to city parks by wealthy philanthropists. While many celebrated the massive gift, controversy still followed Paulson, with some questioning whether a donation of that size to one park was fair, or if it neglected other, needier city parks.

Paulson made his wealth by betting against subprime mortgages before the housing collapse in 2007, and has caught his share of black eyes ever since. But along the way, he started a second job as a philanthropist, with large personal donations to causes like the park and NYU, and through his Paulson Family Foundation. Paulson said he made the contribution to Central Park as a lifelong appreciator with strong family connections to the park: "It kept coming back that, in my mind, Central Park is the most deserving of all of New York’s cultural institutions."

The donation, and others like it in a trend of large gifts to city parks, are no doubt a boon to city dwellers. Central Park has seen its dark days, after all, falling to disrepair and crime before a comeback in the 1990s. Paulson's gift will bolster the park’s endowment by 35%, and pay for a set of capital improvements. In short, he'll give the park the security of not having to struggle for operating expenses or to pay for basic upkeep for some time. 

But the sheer size of Paulson's gift to one public institution also raised some fairness questions.

After all, Central Park is looking pretty good these days. And while it benefits tremendously, the New York Times and Bloomberg both featured articles pointing out that New York City has 1,700 other parks, many in terrible shape in poorer parts of town.

There's also the concern that, while a few parks get rich in the headlines, that public impression might tip decision-makers toward cuts to overall parks funding, which would hurt the others tremendously.

If parks continue to be such magnets for big gifts, the question of how it affects the entire park system will likely come up more. But the question of how it benefits Central Park, the city's most beloved institution, and John Paulson, seems fairly settled.