A passerby's journal of a busy year in Manhattan's Bryant Park
The Herald Tribune
February 28, 2008
by Christopher Sullivan, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - A line from a poem by Carl Sandburg pops into my head one morning as I cut through Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, its newly planted carpet of lush sod taking root.
"I am the grass; I cover all."
The poem tells about new growth hiding the blood and scars of battlefields, and so the parallel with the park's peaceful lawn is hardly direct. And yet both are about nature and order asserting themselves in alien places.
This oasis amid the squawk of taxis and the growl of construction in skyscraper canyons provides a respite for visitors to the city. Its rhythms comfort daily commuters like me who detour, en route to and from our offices, through the tranquil quadrangle off Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street behind the grand marble New York Public Library.
In the course of each year, the broad Bryant Park lawn gets remade over and over - from springtime garden and summer theater venue to autumn capital of fashion runways and twinkling winter holiday village. The turf itself, as long as a football field and framed by London plane-tree walkways, gets dug up and replanted from scratch twice a year. It's a changing stage for a cast of thousands, including regular passersby like me.
Here are excerpts from a passerby's journal.
LATE WINTER, ALMOST SPRING:
Just a week after a March snowfall, pallets of sod arrive. Fifty thousand square feet at about a dollar per, a park manager says. Groundskeepers appear; office workers watch the first strips being laid as they head for work and find a perfect expanse of varied green stripes when they head home. A low rope cordon warns "Lawn Closed." People stroll the adjacent Tuileries-style cinder paths, but no one steps on the new grass.
In a social sense, the park begins to open like a flower on late March afternoons, with their first taste of spring, and people start to return.
Earlier, at the very start of the year, the park is mostly empty, the remnants of last year's winter holiday trappings dismantled and packed away. In February, the first of two annual fashion-world extravaganzas fills the park for a week, with another due in September. That gone, landscapers sculpt the park's bare dirt. Then the sod.
Soon, the first hyacinth buds peek out from beds lining the promenades.
Cocktail hour on a Monday evening. Spring has been fitful and hesitant, but now green tables and chairs with skinny insect legs fill the park's stone terrace, where throngs sip wine under umbrellas in the outdoor cafe.
Long rays of sun fall golden on the Public Library's Beaux-Arts facade, on the bronze forehead of William Cullen Bryant's statue overlooking everything, and on the ruddy face - from a weekend outdoors, finally? - of a businesswoman pausing at the statue's great feet.
Steps below, the lawn itself is a Seurat painting - Monday in the park with Georges - with promenaders, perambulators, and couples old and young inhabiting the canvas. Like Seurat's Parisians, they're dressed-up, more so than Americans typically are these days - not in sweat clothes (except for a few joggers) but dresses and suits, some men with ties, as if they've come straight from work.
Flowers burst all around: 20,000 bulbs produce daffodils, of course, and blooms with names like "Spellbinder" and "Tete a Tete." Amid this profusion, one seated man - heels under chair and chin on fist, is Rodin's thinker, with cellphone.
Like a huge ice stalagmite, a glass-and-steel office tower under construction rises beside the park. Dozens of stories up, a cascade of welder's sparks spills silently.
Watching from a park chair, a heavy man, 60ish, stripped to a blue-flowered swimming suit, applies tanning oil.
The park now has a large screen in a frame of geodesic piping at the west end, set up for a free summer film festival. There are also concerts and poetry readings (by famous poets but also one for schoolkids' work); the latter are held in the shade-dappled "Reading Room" section of the park, where wheeled shelves offer books to borrow.
Few know that deep beneath the park lawn are stacks of the Public Library, or that this lively green once was a potter's field. It's had many lives since being remade as a park, reaching a low point two decades ago when drug dealers and vagrants took over, before a crackdown and cleanup. I remember, back then, approaching the park on Sixth Avenue one night and coming upon the scene of a shooting.
A few hours after the official arrival of summer, a father and son play catch with an odd purple ball, lovers whisper secrets on benches, and, in one corner, on mats, a yoga class poses.
Like an oversized music box, the park's old-fashioned carousel pivots, with children - park staff count 66,000 riders a year - clinging to shiny horses and even a frog.
At the opposite edge of the lawn, a violinist - a good one - practices as I pass, slowing my step.
FRIDAY, JULY 20.
My visiting nephew has come into Manhattan with me this morning, and as I head off for work we part in the park, where "Good Morning America" is broadcasting from a concert. We agree to meet in the evening at Grand Central station, a couple blocks away.
My nephew, who just graduated from college, has a stimulating day - browsing bookstores, exploring NYU, meeting a young woman with red hair, even getting drawn into a noisy New York dust-up over who could claim a taxi. But at the appointed hour, he is not at Grand Central. Ten minutes pass; then half an hour; then almost an hour, and I start to get concerned. I keep getting his cell phone voice mailbox.
Finally he calls. He's on his way. He'd stopped to rest on a bench, had used his backpack as a pillow, and had fallen sound asleep - where he'd started out, in Bryant Park.
JULY 30, 6 p.m.
Rectangle by colorful rectangle, the grass is disappearing under blankets. In twos and threes and fours, people are arriving for a showing of "All the King's Men" on the screen in front of the park's big fountain. Shoes are off, sleeves rolled. A young man killing time does acrobatic tricks. Friends on blankets laugh and unpack picnics.
On some large potted plants, the heavy growth of mid-summer makes mounds of pink flowers.
The film series runs into September, and on average 10,000 spectators attend each showing, I learn. This figures to be one of its balmiest nights. I wish I didn't have to catch a train.
EARLY SEPTEMBER, `FASHION WEEK':
Side streets have filled with flatbed trailers loaded with generators, air conditioning and electrical equipment, portable restrooms, crates. As in February, the fashion world is taking over the park.
These thousands of pieces will create giant tents housing runway shows, smothering the Bryant Park lawn.
Ordinary people line up on the park steps for a chance to gawk at movie stars, who themselves came to gawk at The Newest Thing.
Summing up, one AP story says: "To your left, look at the exotic species `hungry model.' To your right, see the genus `overexposed celebrity.' The catwalk turned into an urban safari as New York Fashion Week drew to a close on Wednesday, full of khakis and tans and plenty of pockets."
THURSDAY, SEPT. 13:
The grass, what few, peripheral patches remain, gets a glimpse of sunlight as crews dismantle the temporary roofs and runways. Security men are replaced by strollers.
In a few days, new sod arrives: another 50,000 square feet, stacked on pallets. Again a weedless, seamless lawn appears.
Around the roped-off rectangle, folks peer across like visitors to a placid pond.
After a good month of daily use, the grass is vanishing again. It's only October, and a warm one at that, but the park is being groomed for its next duty as a sort of winter carnival.
The center of the lawn is being covered with the oval of a skating rink, workers bolting forms together. Around it, more plasticized fabric buildings. These will house places to get skates or grab a hot cocoa. Vendor stalls will go up as the shopping season hits a higher gear.
The grass is all but gone. On a small raised plaza leading toward the rink, artificial turf will retain its gaudy green through the snow ahead. Gertrude Stein, in a statue that faces obliquely away from the lawn, seems to be snubbing it now.
The freckle-barked plane trees have shed leaves. No one's in the Reading Room. Umbrellas that had shaded wine sippers are furled, awaiting storage.
By Thanksgiving, the humming holiday village that has taken over the park is so well established it feels as if it's been there forever, as one strolls among little shops with taut plastic windows and green-striped roofs.
This bustle encircles the rink, or rather "The Pond at Bryant Park, sponsored by Citibank." An enormous Christmas tree commands the stone terrace, blocking William Cullen Bryant's view of the skaters, and vice versa.
From siren-howling 42nd Street, a mother leads her two kids up the steps of the park, where they all glimpse the tree at once.
The tree sparkles in white lights and silvery, snowflake ornaments. Better yet, from the angle of the family's view, its top exactly duplicates the illuminated spire of the Empire State Building, looming almost protectively like a lighthouse; it seems to stand at the tree's shoulder, though it's really blocks away.
Lines of last-minute browsers wind through shops selling woven goods from Guatemala or Tibet, arty stationery, earrings, New Yorker covers in frames, and on and on. Checking my watch (and the train schedule inscribed in my memory), I join the lines - and reach Grand Central a little late with a couple of treasures for under our own tree.
New Year's Eve morning. Quiet. Holiday commerce past, the ephemeral village is folding, its shops now skeletons around the few skaters in the "Pond."
In a corner of the big cafe deck, the insect-leg chairs of summer, collapsed and trussed with strangely festive-looking red twine, lie waiting for a new year's cycle to start. Nearby, an elderly woman practices slow tai chi, warmed by the sun on the fallow grass that will be green again before long.