Fully Booked at the Park
The Wall Street Journal
July 1, 2012
by Ralph Gardner Jr.
The conditions in Bryant Park weren't ideal for a game of Kubb Friday morning. The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity not far behind. And the park's lawn, typically home to some of the most furious lunchtime sunbathing in midtown, was virtually deserted, proof that even New Yorkers are capable of putting comfort before vanity, at least when the city starts to feel like Venus.
Never heard of Kubb? Neither had I. It's a lawn game imported to the park from Scandinavia by Dan Biederman, the president of the Bryant Park Corp. Mr. Biederman, perhaps the only person dressed in a suit and tie on that sweltering afternoon, explained that he and his family were visiting Sweden in 2005 when they saw some locals playing it.
"They played it with a sense of humor," he remembered. His kids, ages 17 and 11 at the time, came up with a name for it – Woodhaven. Which is actually better than its real name. Then again, for all I know, Kubb may translate into something extremely descriptive, poignant or hilarious in Swedish.
"We came back and went to the embassies," he continued. "'Do you know about this?' We've always had interns researching it. We like Bryant Park to have things no one else has."
I suppose that's what interns are for, especially if they're of the unpaid variety. I did an Internet search and the game, its history and rules, came right up. Then again, Mr. Biederman is a stickler for detail. A disciple of the sociologist William "Holly" Whyte, he's an urban engineer par excellence, a maestro of municipal minutiae. I wrote about him back in 2010 when he, or rather a couple of staffers, went around the park with clickers counting the ratio of females to males. Mr. Biederman even formed focus groups to learn how women differ from men in their bathroom habits. I could have saved him some time with that, too.
In any case, the game, sometimes known as "Viking chess," is played with wooden pegs. You take turns trying to topple your opponent's pegs, which are standing maybe 20 to 25 feet away, by flinging attractive Scandinavian-style wooden sticks, or batons, at them.
After failing to knock over a single peg of Nicholas Kattar, the Bryant Park recreation manager whom I was competing against (though quickly building up a profound sweat and coming close to winging a parkgoer seated on a nearby chair) I invited Mr. Biederman to take my place.
"A lot of Bryant Park is trial and error," he explained as he threw the sticks, hardly more successful at hitting the pegs than I was. "We're up to about 14 games in the park."
He started to list them. "Petanque. Chess. Backgammon. Ping pong. Checkers. Dominos. Chinese checkers. Chinese chess. Jenga. What am I leaving out?"
"Apples to Apples," he went on. "Mancala, I didn't mention."
I wondered aloud whether they really needed another game, especially one that monopolized precious lawn space, and that stood at least an outside chance of injuring innocent passersby with an errant toss. I suppose what I was really asking is whether games are the point of a park? I was under the impression that a park's primary purpose was for quiet contemplation, as a refuge from the chaos, from the noise and carbon monoxide of the surrounding city.
Mr. Biederman–between tosses–insisted that it was possible to have both.
"Look at these people," he said. He was referring to some of the 1,200 people who were using the greensward at that very moment. (He knew the number because one of his clicker guys walked by and announced the total.) "All they hear is the tinkling of the piano in the background. And when the carousel starts, the bell ringing."
He seemed to be making my point for me. A park where a pianist passes for tranquility–he was speaking of Joel Forrester, who was performing boogie-woogie music for the lunchtime crowd–and a carousal summoning riders–seems less park than theme park, a vestpocket Disneyworld wedged between the New York Public Library and Avenue of the Americas. And on a stage in the distance professional dancers were practicing for some upcoming event. "I don't even know what's going on, on that stage," Mr. Biederman admitted.
I don't mean to deny Dan Biederman's accomplishment. (He also runs the 34th Street Partnership and three business improvement districts.) Before he and other like-minded civic leaders, such as the Parks Council in the early '80s, came along, Bryant Park was best known as a destination for illicit drugs and prostitution. This is immeasurably better. It's just not really a park.
Or rather it's a park more along the lines of the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Gardens, which Mr. Biederman confessed he admires; he travels frequently to Europe in search of new ideas (such as Kubb). It seems to me those parks are under no illusion that they're recreating nature, as Olmsted and Vaux set out to do in Central and Prospect parks.
Instead, they're taking some of nature's best inventions–trees, for example–and using them as manicured window dressing. They're called "gardens" rather than parks for a reason.
Indeed, after Mr. Biederman lost his game of Kubb to Mr. Kattar–it went on forever – he took me on a tour of the nine-acre space. I was reminded of the park scenes of Renoir, with their dappled light and dancing bourgeoisie. Except in this case they'd been replaced by brown-bagging 21st-century office workers.
"I forgot to say juggling," Mr. Biederman said, adding to his aforementioned list of divertissements, as we passed a professional juggler leading a free class. We also encountered an accordionist playing Edith Piaf's "Under Paris Skies."
"Accordionists are expensive," Mr. Biederman confided. "One accordionist can cost the same as an entire music group. They're either in demand or good negotiators."
He added that his staff was unhappy with the money he was spending on accordionists. I suspect they have a point.
Bryan Thomas for The Wall Street Journal
The game of Kubb as demonstrated by Dan Biederman, president of the Bryant Park Corp.
Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal
Bryant Park's entertainment includes the carousel and numerous games, such as Kubb.