The Talk of The Town
The New Yorker
September 7, 2007
by Nick Paumgarten
For the past month, the keepers of Bryant Park have employed a system of electronic sensors to count the number of people using the park’s public rest rooms. In September, they’re going to test the system at a couple of the park’s entrances, with the goal of refining their park-traffic assessments, which they rely upon to measure the health of the park and the success of the various programs they’ve introduced to lure people there.
This would seem to represent a threat to Danny Gordon, whose job it has been, for the past five years, to count, by hand, the daily number of lunchtime visitors. But Gordon has an advantage, which one hopes no machine could nullify, and that is his ability to tell the difference between a man and a woman. In those rare instances when he can’t, he just guesses. “Sometimes I’ll make it a man, sometimes I’ll make it a woman,” he said one recent muggy afternoon. “And, if I realize afterward that I was wrong, I’ll change the next person.” He counts with two clickers: one in his right hand for the men, one in his left for the women. As he clicks his way through the lunchtime crowds, arms out, wrists bobbing, he looks a little like a skier planting his poles.
Recently, Gordon has found that, on most weekdays, there are more women in the park than men. This is how his boss, Dan Biederman, would like it to be. Biederman, the longtime president of the Bryant Park Corporation, was a protégé of the urban sociologist William (Holly) Whyte, whose theories about the dynamics of public space included the idea that the presence of women indicates civic health.
“Women pick up on visual cues of disorder better than men do,” Biederman said the other day. “They’re your purest customers. And, if women don’t see other women, they tend to leave.” Biederman visits the park several times a day and sometimes goes undercover. (Look out for a fit, middle-aged gentleman in a pin-striped suit, reading “The Red Badge of Courage.”) He has discerned that women notice homeless people more than men do, object more to crumbs on picnic tables, and are more sensitive to foul odors, such as that of urine, which signals that there are no clean, functional bathrooms nearby. Twenty years ago, Bryant Park was an infamous shambles. Few women—or men—would go near it. Now it’s a handsome place, with flower beds, pétanque games, a lending library, a carousel, thousands of portable chairs, theatrical performances, and many other inducements. And so the women come. Presumably, a female preponderance not only emboldens more women but also entices more men. “There’s great girl-watching,” Biederman acknowledged.
Danny Gordon, the head-counter, can attest to this. Last August, as he clicked his way through the park, a young woman from Trinidad asked him what he was doing, and he explained.
“Do I count?” she asked.
“You’re so pretty, you count twice,” he told her. Nine months later, they were married.
Gordon is forty-four and lives in Fairview, New Jersey. He often roller-skates to work, via the George Washington Bridge. The counting, which is one of his many duties, takes about an hour. He starts at the park’s southeast corner at around 1 P.M., dividing the park into strips and working them east to west and then back. He’ll designate a tree or a certain person—“ ‘black shirt,’ ‘red hair,’ ‘green glasses,’ or, before I got married, ‘hot mama’ ”—as a boundary for each strip. “It’s really easy to drift,” he said. The open lawn in the middle of the park was disgorging hundreds of people who’d come to see an opera performance. “I’ll get the moving traffic first,” he said. He worked fast, and had no problem clicking and talking at the same time. He’d tried earlier to estimate the size of the crowd on the lawn, and now he went out on the grass to count the number of chairs left behind. It soon became clear that his method was not entirely scientific, although it may be unscientific in the same way every day.
When he was done counting, he looked at the clickers and said, “These are jive-turkey numbers.” There had been a couple of anomalies: the opera crowd, a late start. He did a little math on a piece of paper. Still, the tally—3,370—was typical, as was the breakdown: fifty-three per cent female. “Go to any public space in the world,” Biederman had said. “If it’s skewing overwhelmingly male, get out as soon as possible.” It was a nice afternoon, therefore, to linger.